County's Budget Hit By Troubled Economy

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"Lack of money."

With those three words, Gila County Finance Director John Nelson summed up the greatest challenge of hammering together the county's tentative $57,373,234 budget for fiscal year 2002-2003.

The tentative budget, which calls for a general fund increase of $170,253 (to $28,840,251) and an overall budget increase of 9.9 percent (or $5,156,373) over the previous fiscal year, has been approved by the Gila County Board of Supervisors, who will be asked to give it official approval at their Tuesday, Aug. 6 meeting in Globe.

"We had very little growth in revenues this year, with the way the economy is going," Nelson said. "This was a tough one. We go through this about every six or seven years, as the economy goes up and then starts falling, and obviously we have to make the adjustments."

This year, he said, one of the major components for county revenues was state-shared sales tax, which dropped about eight percent between the start of the last fiscal year and the end of the 2001 fiscal year.

"What the state has forecast is a two-percent increase; they think the economy is turning around," Nelson said. "But obviously, they're a little skeptical."

Another wild-card question, he added, was how to factor the Rodeo-Chediski Fire into the budget.

"We have used estimates I am very nervous about ... but we'll continue watching that through the year, and make adjustments if we have to," Nelson said.

In addition to a flat-revenue year, Gila County saw "significant" cost increases totaling about $80,000.

Yet another increase of $150,000 was mandated by the federal government, which is pushing the Gila County Sheriff's Department to improve prisoner health care.

"We're being monitored right now by the federal government ... and inmate health care is the last issue we have outstanding," Nelson said. "If we don't solve that problem ourselves, typically the federal courts will come in, decide what needs to be done, and send us the bill," Nelson said. "We do not want to get into that situation."

Because the board of supervisors was "adamant" that the new budget be managed without property-tax increases, Nelson said, the only choice was to foot the $800,000 in cost increases by finding an equal amount in cost reductions.

"We did that primarily in two areas," he said. "We reduced 11 1/2 positions sprinkled throughout the county, including two in the health department, one in the assessor's office, and one in the courts that we're still negotiating over. And the other thing we did for the first time ever: we were forced to charge employees for single medical insurance coverage."

Currently, the county is paying for dependent coverage for its employees, Nelson said. But with the tremendous increases the county is seeing in medical, that policy could not be continued.

"But we did put it on a sliding scale," he said, "so the lower-paid employees pay less and the higher-paid employees pay more. We thought that was fair."

The position reduction is expected to save the county $379,405, and employee charges for medical coverage represents a $75,000 reduction.

Virtually all of the cuts made, Nelson said, were in the county's general fund.

"Those things which are grant related ... were not reduced, since (they are not funded by) Gila County taxpayer money," he said.

The general fund is made up of 46 percent of property taxes, 28 percent of other taxes, 12 percent intergovernmental, 11 percent of "other costs," and three percent of fund balance. It grew over the past year by $817,954, with increases in such budgetary categories as primary/ general elections ($100,000), out-of-county tuition ($62,356), general insurance ($55,000), and capital improvements ($2,046,000), the library district ($785,893), and road funds ($11,296,017).

Down to the bone

According to Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen, the single most important thing taxpayers need to understand about all of these numbers is that "this is really a bare-bones budget, right down to the nitty-gritty.

"The board was absolutely adamant about not raising taxes and if you're not going to raise taxes, there's only one other way to go," Christensen said. "That really put a chore on the finance director to work through the necessary cuts and changes ... and we may not be done yet. But I don't anticipate many more changes ..."

Christensen said the supervisors are "very diligently seeking ways to bring money in from other areas," including the federal government.

"In past years, because of the cutbacks by some of the more radical (environmentalist) groups in terms of grazing, mining, and the multiple use of public lands ... the taxpayers of Gila County end up subsidizing the federal government, and I don't look kindly on that at all," Christensen said. "That's my biggest concern, and we've been successful so far with getting the federal government to pay more in. However, they have not funded their portion of their tax bill out here to date. Hopefully, we can get this new Congress and new administration to address that in a more positive way."

That success alone would be of "extreme help to all" county taxpayers, Christensen said, "because everything that happens in the forest ends up somewhere in our system whether it's responding to forest fires, violations of the law that end up in our courts and jail system. All of those things end up costing Gila County, and it's no more than fair and right that (the federal government) pay a portion of that bill."

The bright side

Despite slashes which cut across the breadth of Gila County, the tentative budget is not without what Nelson calls "two really exciting" elements.

"Normally when you make cutbacks, the easiest thing to do is forget about the future," he said. "That was not done in this budget. We still maintained $96,000 for water development ... and $150,000 has been set aside by the board of supervisors to start developing web-based services."

Of the latter plan, Nelson said that because "we are a large county with small pockets of population, we can't serve efficiently and effectively with the revenues we have if we're going to try to do it in the old, traditional way. We need to get out there on the Internet ... and really reach our constituents and our customers.

"It's going to be a long process to get where we need to be," Nelson said, "but we're starting."

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