Matt Nielsen and Brigette Peterson made their cases in Gilbert mayoral debate on azcentral
Brigette Peterson played up her experience in town government while Matt Nielsen touted his private sector work in an hourlong Gilbert mayoral debate on Thursday.
The debate, hosted by The Arizona Republic, gave the two candidates a platform to talk about their often similar conservative views on town finances, social services and the pandemic.
The key difference between the two conservative candidates is the insider versus outsider perspectives. Peterson is a veteran in town politics, while Nielsen is a political newcomer.
Both see that to their advantage.
Peterson has spent two decades in town government, first on the Planning Commission and then about five years on the Town Council.
“Having served those five years on the Gilbert Town Council has given me the background that I need to take Gilbert forward and to step in on the first day and be the mayor of Gilbert,” she said.
Nielsen said his background from outside what he has called “the establishment” will better serve residents.
“As I talk to Gilbert residents, a lot of them are happy with where Gilbert is and where we’ve come from. Fewer of them, though, are happy with where we’re headed,” Nielsen said, adding that his 20 years of private sector experience and his formal education will help with needed fiscal responsibility.
Peterson and Nielsen lean right to different degrees on some issues, leaving it to voters to decide the level of conservatism they want.
Taxing and spending
Gilbert is known for fiscal conservatism, but Nielsen questioned proposed spending in the town budget approved in June.
He said it was “absolutely inappropriate” for the town to add 82 new positions this year with the financial fallout from COVID-19.
Peterson countered that the new positions would not be filled until the town met certain financial benchmarks and that the budget was for the whole year. She defended the town's budget-making process and the review that goes into every new position.
“Our team does such a great job in their zero-based budgeting every single year. It’s played like Hunger Games, that’s the best description that I can give you. They have to come in and fight for the positions that they want to add, and they have done this relentlessly," she said.
Nielsen specifically questioned the necessity of two proposed positions, a volunteer coordinator and a wellness coordinator. He said each had proposed base wages of more than $100,000.
The town budget shows one of the base annual salaries about $78,000 and the other at about $96,000. Both salaries would top $100,000 when including benefits.
Both candidates said they would favor sending a transportation bond request to voters next year if that’s what’s decided. Town staff members initially proposed a $465 million transportation bond for this year’s ballot but postponed it due to the pandemic.
Peterson said that without a primary property tax, Gilbert relies on the sale of bonds to fund big projects like transportation. She said Gilbert's solid credit rating saves on the bond financing costs.
Although Nielsen has said his default position is “no new taxes,” he said residents expect high-quality roads and infrastructure and he’d support letting voters decide about the bond, although he’d first want to make sure $465 million is the responsible number to request.
Social services and the pandemic
Asked about social services and whether Gilbert does enough to help vulnerable residents, particularly in the pandemic, Nielsen said that is largely the role of nonprofits and faith leaders, which the town can support.
Peterson agreed but said the town could do more.
“I think that we can do more. Our cities and towns around us comment that our homeless get sent to them because we don’t have any place for them to go. We have no shelters for anybody that’s involved in a domestic violence situation, so they’re all going out of town,” Peterson said.
Gilbert recently outlined how it would spend most of the $30 million the town received in federal coronavirus relief funding, with most going to support business, and some to nonprofits.
Both candidates said the town did a good job allocating the funds, although Peterson said she would've liked to see the money go out faster.
The town received its allocation from the state in early July. The application process for businesses to seek financial help still has not opened, according to the town’s website.
Asked about affordable housing options in Gilbert, neither candidate advocated for the town to play a greater town role in that area.
Peterson said that’s a difficult position for the town because the community is growing and new residential development is priced high to meet the market demand.
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Nielsen said he’s been told only about 70 to 80 residents use Section 8 housing vouchers in the town of more than 260,000 people, and that working with nonprofits on housing would be more effective and efficient.
When it came to mask-wearing in the pandemic, neither favored a town mandate if the need arises again.Peterson said that a county mandate makes the most sense because it provides consistency to residents who frequently travel between cities.
Nielsen said he does not support any mask mandates because he does not think it's the proper role of government.
“There are just some things in life that government has no role in and shouldn’t have a role in, and there’s one, in my opinion: personal health choices or personal choices of what you wear in public, in my opinion, should not be mandated by the government," he said.
Jobs and the workforce
The candidates discussed workforce development, jobs and incentives to bring in high-paying employers.
Asked where they stand on giving incentives to attract big employers, Nielsen answered first that Gilbert is attractive as is, so incentives are not necessary.
“I would really prefer not to use incentives in order to attract them. We’re attractive as it is and I’m sure that we don’t really need that … (Employers and developers) are tripping over themselves already to get into Gilbert because it is such a great place," he said.
Brigette disagreed and said all the neighboring cities are “attractive,” so sometimes incentives make sense.
“How do we get them to decide to come to Gilbert?” Peterson said. “Sometimes you need a little bit of a carrot to do that. And we have done that in Gilbert, and we’ve brought thousands of high-wage jobs to Gilbert through Deloitte and Northrup Grumman and that was the way that we accomplished that. Because we weren’t the only city on their list.”
Nielsen followed up to say he wouldn’t be opposed to infrastructure improvements as incentives in some circumstances, but his rule of thumb would be no tax breaks.
In terms of ensuring that residents are qualified to fill jobs, both candidates said workforce development should be a continued priority.
Difference between you and your opponent?
Asked what makes them different from their opponent, Peterson leaned back on her experience in town government and Nielsen touted his professional background.
Peterson said she has watched every council meeting since she resigned to run for mayor and has kept up on everything that's happening in the town. She's met with the town manager, police chief, police officers and firefighters and says she has the experience and relationships needed to be mayor on day one.
Nielsen said he's been a small business owner and knows how to work to make ends meet and make a success out of a business. He said he is focused on hearing from small businesses in the town to learn how government can help them succeed.
The two candidates traded their sharpest words during closing statements.
Peterson said she's "been there for the tough conversations and the tough discussions over the years."
She said she's "been there to add thousands of high-paying jobs to the town of Gilbert" and "been there" to lower the tax rate and "been there" to pay off bonds early.
"I love and care about the town of Gilbert. I have shown that and proven that over the past 20 years of service that I have provided to the town," Peterson said.
Nielsen said that's not enough.
"Being there for tough conversations and being there as other people lead efforts isn't going to get it done for the town of Gilbert moving into the future," he said. "We need someone that can lead, that has led and that has a proven track record of leadership."