County Officials In A Battle For Funds

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In the end, it's all a matter of simple mathematics, said Gila County leaders.

The county's population has grown, its tax base has dramatically changed, and the strain on services such as those provided by the health department has increased.

For these reasons, the Gila County Board of Supervisors made a request to towns around the county: pony up to help fund the health department.

"Miami said yes. Hayden/Winkelman said yes," said Gila County District 1 Supervisor Ron Christensen. "Globe and Payson both said no, so we've had to look at other alternatives."

Without the support of the county's two largest incorporated communities, the board was forced to reduce funding for library districts in order to increase funding for health, county officials said.

"In the past, what we had been doing was taxing the mines to provide services," said John Nelson, county finance director. "You can call that a good tax policy or a bad tax policy, but it's a tax policy that has some basis to it."

As the mining industry in Gila County has suffered economic setbacks, county coffers have been squeezed as officials have tried to cover the increasing costs of services.

"There's been a big change in the brew," Nelson said. "The entire revenue mix has changed. From state-shared sales tax and property taxes on the mines as our main revenue streams, we are now talking about our main revenue stream being property tax on the homeowners and small business."

Nelson said taxpayers on both ends of the county would rather see towns chip into the health department budget rather than have an increase in property taxes.

What's legal
County Administrator Steve Besich said there is also legal precedence for counties to charge municipalities for health services.

The City of Lake Havasu and Mojave County battled the same issue in court. The judge ruled in favor of Mojave County, forcing Lake Havasu to help fund mandated services.

"The city case has already been tried. That's a slam dunk," Nelson said. "The town case has never been tried.

"If we're going to treat all of our taxpayers equally, how do we charge the city for health fees, but say to the town, even though it's twice the size in population, three times the size in assessed valuation, 'We won't bill you.' We're just trying to treat everybody fairly."

Besich said the county has been in the crosshairs of public criticism over the decrease in library funding, but in all reality, Gila County is under no legal obligation to fund even a part of the library.

"Gila County has no county libraries," he said. "All of the libraries in the county are under the identity of towns or cities."

Based on 1998 figures, Gila County was funding 82 percent of the libraries' budgets -- the highest percentage of any county in the state.

"Navajo County funds only 14 percent of its libraries," Besich said. "Pima and Coconino counties demand their cities and towns meet them halfway --they're each funding 50 percent of their libraries."

The best case scenario, Besich said, is for the City of Globe and the Town of Payson to open up their pocketbooks to help fund the health department.

"(Payson's) contingency fund reserve balance went up 33 percent," Besich said. "Their sitting --between the City of Globe, the Town of Payson, Hayden, Winkelman and Miami --on between $4.5 to $5 million cash. We've only asked them to chip in $175,000 collectively. That's less the 4 percent."

The worst-case scenario, Nelson said, is that library supporters will stage such a protest Tuesday when the board votes on the tentative budget that the supervisors will restore funding to the library districts.

"If that happens," he said, "then every homeowner takes it in the shorts. That's how I see it."

The board of supervisors will address the issue, along with consideration of the tentative budget, at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3 at the Gila County Courthouse in Globe.

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