A 16-member blue ribbon panel that includes Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has six months to suggest creative ways to overhaul state and local government financing.
Good luck with that.
Gov. Jan Brewer appointed a cross section of state and local officials to the high-powered panel in hopes of coming up with recommendations to reform the state’s tax structure and the relationship between the state and local government, badly strained by the ongoing state budget crisis.
“We’re supposed to look at the entire structure of how money is collected, how much dependency we have on different taxes and what may be a more appropriate balance to avoid some of the calamities we’re faced with right now,” said Evans.
The group was slated to meet six times over the course of the next year, but the schedule has already slipped waiting for the governor and the Republican legislature to agree on a fix for the current year’s budget — still billions of dollars out of balance.
Gov. Brewer has pushed for a temporary sales tax increase to get the state through the year, but key legislative Republicans have refused to consider a tax increase.
“We’re 20 months into this crisis and we still don’t have a budget, and I find that appalling,” said Evans.
Among other things, some lawmakers still want to use the budget crisis to force through a ban on impact fees charged by cities and towns, like Payson’s $7,500-per-unit charge to raise money to build the $30-million Blue Ridge pipeline. All told, the town and the Northern Gila County Sanitary District charge about $15,000 per unit, although the near collapse of the construction industry locally has already dried up that source of new fees.
“Unfortunately, nothing’s off the table,” Evans said, when it comes to state proposals to take money from local governments and school districts to balance its budget.
Moreover, last week Payson learned it will likely lose $500,000 in income tax revenue collected by the state and distributed to cities as a result of a fall in income tax collections.
The town has struggled with declining sales tax revenue, forcing a freeze on salaries and most hires, and cancellation of most street and capital improvement projects. Even with all those cuts, the council had to rely on a loan from the water department to provide any reserve funds at all in the current budget. Evans likened the effort to rounding up enough votes to pass a balanced budget to “herding cats.”
“I am extremely disappointed in the Republican leadership. You’ve got all these folks running in 14 different directions and no one pulling them back together and saying ‘what’s in the common good?’”
Evans said he’d been working with moderate Republican lawmakers like 5th District Safford Republican house member Bill Konopnicki, who lives in Safford but represents the Rim Country.
“Moderate Democrats and Republicans need to sit down and come up with the roadblocks — by name — those people who have made ‘over my dead body’ commitments and then find a way around that roadblock.”
Evans said the prolonged stalemate and the constant threat the legislature will swallow up money on which local governments rely has upended local budget planning.
“Where we go awry is if the legislature heads off on one of those tangents that would absolutely devastate rural counties and all the municipalities — even though there’s not enough money there to even come close to solving the state’s problem. It just makes it bad for the rest of us — so I guess misery loves company,” concluded Evans.