Payson's Library May Suffer To Cover Health Costs

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Gila County has figured out another way to get the money it needs for its municipal health departments and intends to reduce appropriations to libraries in its incorporated towns in August.

In Payson's case, the reduction in funding would be about $92,000, or three full-time positions at the library.

"This has just come as an absolute total surprise," Payson Library Director Terry Morris said. "Last time I talked with County Librarian Jacque Griffin, everything was status quo."

Morris said Monday that she found out about the attempt by Gila County to shift some of the costs of the County Health Department to towns at a meeting earlier in the day with Gila County Administrator Steve Besich in Gila County District 1 Supervisor Ron Christensen's office.

The meeting was to be a joyous occasion, said Payson Library Friends President Judy Buettner. She said the Library Policy Committee had just finalized the plans for the new library building to be located in Rumsey Park.

But Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler, in a memorandum sent Monday to the Town Council, staff and library officials, wrote that the county "now intends to reduce appropriations for public libraries to offset fees that had been sought for municipalities for costs of the County Health Department."

The move would mean a reduction of nearly $92,000 in the county's expected contribution to the Payson library's budget, from $156,400 to $64,489.

Underkofler said the county is also planning to reduce allocations to libraries in Globe, Miami and Hayden, but funding for libraries outside the municipalities on the San Carlos Indian Reservation, Pine-Strawberry, Young and Tonto Basin would not be affected.

"They're doing this in all the cities and towns in Gila County," he said. "They're not doing it for library appropriations in unincorporated areas."

He said the Payson Public Library has the largest circulation of any library in Gila County.

At the meeting, Besich told the group that the Gila County primary property tax rate is expected to increase by 30 cents, from $3.67 to $3.97. He said that approximately 10 cents of the tax increase will go to cover health fees the county had billed the municipalities for earlier. The municipalities have rejected those bills.

To offset that increase, the county intends to reduce the secondary tax rate for library services by six cents, from $.2425 to $.1825 per $100 of assessed property.

On June 22, Gila County sent the Town of Payson a bill for $278,181 for Health Department costs for two years. That was the first "surprise."

The Town Council decided to resist all attempts by the county to force municipalities to pay for the Health Department costs and authorized Town Attorney Sam Streichman to join with other municipalities in a lobbying effort against the county's claims.

Council members said at the time that they would meet the county in court, if necessary.

Streichman said that the town was not liable for the costs under an Arizona statute, HB 2476, enacted by the 1999 Legislature, that states the following:

"Until Dec. 31, 2001, the Board of Supervisors shall not require a city or a town to contribute to the county's Public Health Budget if the Board of Supervisors did not require the city or town to contribute monies to the county for a portion of the county's Public Health Budget before Jan. 1, 1999."

At the meeting of Library Policy Committee Monday, Besich said, "The County Board of Supervisors regards health department services to be a higher priority than library services."

Besich went on to say, "Since the municipalities have declined to share in the costs of the County Health Department, the decision whether to make up the shortfall in library funding will be left to the municipalities. The Town of Payson has sufficient funds in its contingency accounts to make up a county funding reduction for the Payson Library."

Underkofler said the town has $400,000 appropriated in its contingency fund in its FY 1999-2000 tentative budget. Next year's budget includes $63,423 from the general fund for operating expenses. Another $400,000 is restricted in the capital project fund for the new library building.

Morris said the decision to reduce funding to the libraries will be voted on by the county supervisors. "They set the tax rate the first week in August -- it's any man's guess what will happen. The $92,000 they plan to cut is a good percentage of our operating budget."

The Payson Library's operating budget in the coming year is $246,000, with $15,000 of that allocated for a capital project, an e-mail system that will connect the library with town offices.

Morris said that the Library Policy Committee met with the architect for the new building on Monday and agreed to go ahead with a scale model for the new library. She said there is no change in the plan to provide a new library to the community.

"Our community is prosperous and growing," she said. "In order for us to provide services for a growing community, we need a building to accommodate that. I think it's tragic, just absolutely tragic, that the value is not there. If we don't have the facilities to educate our children, then we're sending them out ill-equipped to become productive citizens."

Morris said she has not had an opportunity to talk with librarians in other cities and towns in the county and does not know how they will deal with the county's proposed cuts.

"We have always had a sense of community," she said. "We've worked very hard to come together for the common good of the libraries of Gila County.

"This could be catastrophic."
Morris said the county's decision to cut funding for some libraries and not others could create tension between the municipalities' libraries and those in the outlying areas.

"It almost pits them one against the other," she said. "I don't think we should have to choose health care over library service or no service -- I don't think that should ever be an issue."

On Thursday, July 22, a planned Summer Reading Craft Day, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. for the Children's Reading Program at the library, will conclude at 6 p.m. in order to allow library staff and supporters to attend the Town Council meeting to discuss the county's latest decision.

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