County Increases Property Tax

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Arizona’s state government will cost Gila County an extra $1 million in higher expenses and lost revenue this year, and Gila County homeowners will subsidize half of that, supervisors decided Wednesday.

The 2 percent tax increase, up $9 to $419 per $100,000 of assessed value, will net the county an extra $494,000.

Also on Wednesday, supervisors adopted a $104 million budget for 2011.

Three Payson residents opposed the increase and urged supervisors to cut services instead of burdening already heavily taxed homeowners.

“I think it is a tragedy and it shouldn’t go forward,” said Stan Langham. He said high taxes in central Arizona have pushed business out.

Stan’s wife, Jeanie, said the couple, which runs a contracting business, hasn’t had work for 20 months. The couple has sacrificed, she said. For instance, Jeanie has forgone her salon appointments in favor of home dye jobs.

When they don’t work, their employees don’t work.

“This is a really hard time for everyone,” Jeanie said. “We need to look at the budget and start cutting.”

Joe Pickens, who said he receives no county services, said his taxes in Scottsdale were lower than in Payson.

“The county doesn’t do anything for me,” Pickens said.

Supervisors said they regretted increasing taxes, but that the economy left them no choice. Gila County’s small percentage of private, taxable land leaves fewer homeowners to pay for public services like courts and cops.

“I don’t want to pay more taxes. I don’t want to hurt any small businesses or large businesses,” said Supervisor Shirley Dawson.

“We don’t live in Scottsdale because we don’t like the traffic, the crime,” she added. Dawson said fancy Valley resorts like the Phoenician have offered her deals, but she declined to go because of crime like drive-by shootings.

Dawson also mourned the loss of education dollars spent at the state level, and said fewer dollars spent on education results in more money spent in the criminal justice system.

For instance, the county is spending $400,000 to build a new women’s jail. On Wednesday morning, the existing jail housed 40 women in an 18-bed facility.

Dawson worried that the federal government could take over the jail and expose the county to huge lawsuits for inhumane treatment of prisoners.

When Arizona citizens pay their lawmakers just $24,000 annually, Dawson said, the quality is correspondingly low.

Supervisor Tommie Martin said that while 4 percent of Gila County’s land is private, just 1.5 percent produces tax revenue because the other 2.5 percent is used for things like mine waste.

“We live in a sea of non-productive land,” said Martin, adding that re-introducing industry into the forests offered the surest way to earn money.

Martin talked about the 120-day hiring freeze that has saved approximately $2 million with its resulting 10 percent vacancy rate.

“We are absolutely doing more with less,” she said.

Supervisor Mike Pastor echoed his colleagues’ frustrations. “It’s unfortunate they don’t realize all the services we provide,” he said about residents.

Expenses like police and courts absorb more than half of the total general fund.

Much of the county’s expenses involve offering services to people unable to afford them. For example, this year’s indigent legal defense fund is $1.2 million, and paying for the state’s low-income health insurance plan will cost $3.5 million.

Since the economy entered a recession, the county has relied on reserves to avoid layoffs and maintain services.

Many departments, however, ended 2010 under budget, and Deputy County Manager John Nelson has said he didn’t use any reserves last year although he planned to.

This year’s $104 million budget would have had a loss of $2.4 million. However, county management recommended using $1.8 million in rainy day money and asking taxpayers for another 2 percent.

The county will still enter the year with $12 million in reserves.

This year’s budget, also approved Wednesday, calls for absorbing $375,000 worth of increased health insurance costs for employees, paying $75,000 so two schools can keep the previously state-funded resource officers, and $300,000 in continuing aid to Gila Community College.

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