Gila County officials may have to see the Payson Town Council in court before the council agrees to a county demand for more than $278,000 for health services for the town.
Council members voted unanimously Thursday night to "press on and resist the county's demands on all levels."
At issue is what District 1 County Supervisor Ron Christensen called "delivery of Gila County health services to the Town of Payson, and accompanying cost sharing."
The demand that the town help foot the bill for health services provided by the county comes on the heels of an opinion from the Gila County Attorney's Office stating that the county has no authority to provide health services within incorporated areas unless requested to do so by the cities and towns of the county.
In a letter to town officials dated June 22, Christensen requested $139,090 for each of fiscal years 1998-1999 and1999-2000, which county officials say is Payson's share of the budget for health services to town residents.
Christensen wrote that the county's goal is to keep the matter out of court, but Town Council members were adamant Thursday that they would resist the demand and join up with other towns and cities who are also being pressured to pay for county health services.
Council member Barbara Brewer asked Town Attorney Sam Streichman, who gave the report to council, if the demand was not a form of double taxation.
Streichman said, "Legally, it is."
He is recommending that the council join with the City of Yuma, which has hired a lobbyist to take a similar situation with Yuma County to the State Legislature. He said it is possible that other cities and towns will join in the lobbying effort.
"I think we need to attack it on that front," Streichman said. "This is a very touchy and slippery legal matter the county has left on our doorstep. If we have to, we'll meet them in court."
Streichman also told the council that the town should contact Gov. Jane Hull about what he called the "costly and troublesome quarrel."
"I think this is going to go all over the state," he said.
Issue dates back two decades
In fact, the problem has been going on all over the state for quite some time.
More than 20 years ago, on July 27, 1976, Deputy County Attorney Carl H. Coad of Yavapai County wrote that it was the opinion of his office and of the Attorney General that Yavapai County was obligated to provide the same services within the incorporated towns of Clarkdale, Cottonwood and Jerome as it provided elsewhere, with the exception of incorporated cities.
The State Legislature attempted to address the issue, but, according to Streichman, didn't get very far.
House Bill 2476, relating to local boards of health, which was passed without the governor's signature, goes into effect in August. ARS 36-185 states: "Until Dec. 31, 2001, the Board of Supervisors shall not require a city or 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."
The Gila County Board of Supervisors has recently sent three letters to Town of Payson officials regarding cost sharing for health services. They were all dated after Jan. 1, 1999, written April 27, May 27, and June 22.
Streichman said that the county's request not only goes against ARS 36-185, but also poses another legal question about whether a town can provide health services. Arizona state law allows for cities to provide health services, but not towns, he said.
Globe City Manager Manoj Vyas, in a June 10 letter to Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler, wrote that Globe's position will be to request the county's services to its residents, but he said, "we have not and will not commit to any cost participation."
"They have just made this a statewide problem," Streichman said after the meeting Thursday. "(Gila County) may be surprised by how the Legislature decides on this. It wouldn't surprise me if the Legislature doesn't mandate they perform these services without contribution."