County Supervisors Consider Tax Hike

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Gila County will scrape through another year, balancing its proposed $104 million budget with $1.8 million from a rainy day fund, but again avoiding layoffs or service cutbacks.

Supervisors could also approve a 2 percent property tax increase, up about $9 to $419 per $100,000 of assessed value. The increase will net an additional $500,000.

Supervisors disagreed about the tax increase. Supervisor Shirley Dawson worried about taxing residents on fixed incomes out of their homes while Supervisor Tommie Martin worried about overspending reserves with a still-shaky economy.

“It’s really a tough one to add to their burden,” Dawson said about fixed-income residents. “I just see lots of the American dream being killed by taxation.”

Martin countered, “I’m not so sure we’re not heading for another bottom. Do we continue to eat into our rainy day fund completely?”

Gila County’s combined tax rates make it the fifth highest taxing county of the 15 counties in the state. Its large percentage of federal land foists paying for public services on a relatively few number of households, county officials have said.

The tentative budget approved Tuesday is $4 million larger than last year’s — or 4 percent cent — and 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.

Supervisors will adopt the final budget late next month, which is the same day they’ll finalize the property tax levy.

Deputy County Manager John Nelson lamented the so-called “storm clouds” — the still unknown costs associated with enforcing the new immigration bill, the threat of housing juvenile delinquents, and a still unrecovered economy.

About the state, Nelson said, “at least they could be open and honest and say how much” these measures will cost. Lawmakers pontificate on making government smaller and cutting costs, then say, “OK, counties. Now you do it.”

Overall, the county’s finances appear solid. It will start the year with $12 million in reserves, $5 million of which is cash aimed to tide government spending over until tax receipts filter in.

Governments without the reserve must borrow money until payday.

Included in the $12 million, the county has saved $2 million from an ongoing 120-day hiring freeze, along with some stimulus money. Nelson recommended setting the money aside for future capital needs instead of spending it on day-to-day expenses because it isn’t guaranteed income.

He also suggested giving employees two extra personal days off annually as reward for hard work despite stagnant salaries, as well as continuing the 120-day hiring freeze. Nelson said the freeze was unsustainable — it has resulted in a 10 percent vacancy rate — but the move has saved the county money.

Supervisors even honored the freeze while searching for a new county manager.

And although Nelson suggested continuing funding for the college, he suggested putting other community agencies on notice that they shouldn’t count on last year’s funding levels.

Most of the budget increase comes from state and federal money for three big public works projects — $2.5 million toward a bridge over Tonto Creek, $600,000 toward paving the Young road, and $1 million to construct sidewalks on the road that leads to the Globe GCC campus.

The general fund, however, will also see an extra $1.6 million in spending.

The number includes $400,000 for holding a general election and for redistricting the county, a process which will follow final census figures.

Additional costs include six additional staffers for the new women’s jail, including four detention officers, to cost $400,000, and replacing antiquated software in the treasurer’s office.

Overall, the county will shoulder an extra $1 million in costs and decreased revenue because of the downturn.

That includes a $400,000 decline in sales tax receipts and the state’s plan to keep $500,000 in lottery revenue the county would normally receive.

Some county departments, including public works and health and community services, have lower budgets this year than last. However, budgets for other departments, like the sheriff’s office, will increase.

Public works plans on spending $30.2 million next year, a 4 percent drop. However, the grant-heavy agency doesn’t usually spend all the money it plans to. Out of this year’s $31.3 million budget, the department spent just $13 million.

The sheriff’s department, however, did spend most of its $11.3 million budget this year. The agency’s budget is set to increase by 9 percent, to $12.5 million.

Public works and the sheriff’s department comprise nearly half of the county’s overall budget.

Governments must account for all the money they think they might spend because they can’t spend over the limit they set at the year’s start. Countywide, for instance, officials spent just $61 million of a $100 million budgeted this year, mostly because hoped-for grants don’t always materialize.

Find the county’s budget online at www.gilacountyaz.gov.

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