With a state budget shortfall projected at $825 million this year, Gila County officials are bracing for more expenses handed down to them from the state.
This year, Gila County will bear an additional $1.6 million in costs because of state cuts, including reduced revenue from sweeps in highway and lottery funds. Over the past two years, the state has withheld $2.7 million in funding from Gila County.
Meanwhile, local revenue has fallen. The county has lost $1.9 million in sales tax and auto license fees over the past two years.
With no jump-start to the lagging economy in sight, county officials said they would rather not pursue most of the legislative proposals suggested by the state’s County Supervisors Association (CSA). The proposals range from legislative clarifications on maintaining primitive roads to allowing counties to charge license fees to traveling peddlers.
This year, counties should focus on defending themselves, said Deputy County Manager John Nelson.
Arizona politicians have yet to ask how they could better run the state’s business, said Nelson. “Until we do that, we should all be ashamed.”
Supervisor Shirley Dawson said that legislators continue to meet in secret, and without asking the opinions of those who must live with their decisions.
Dawson said supervisors were invited to the Capitol last year. “We sat outside in the hallway,” said Dawson, adding that the invite was for publicity purposes.
Although the economy has begun to show improvements, half of all Arizona mortgages sit on the verge of foreclosure, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
“Not a very pretty picture, but that’s where we are this legislative season,” said Nelson.
Nelson said he thought CSA was pushing too many initiatives with its list of 21 proposals.
Supervisors agreed, and worried about the implications of a state so broke that lawmakers are considering dissolving the juvenile detention system, in favor of making the counties incarcerate young criminals.
“We cannot take care of them in Globe, Ariz., or in Payson,” said Dawson.
Other state proposals that supervisors say could be potentially devastating include sending adult prisoners back to the counties.
Supervisor Tommie Martin agreed with Nelson. “For me, this year, it is strictly keeping our head above water,” she said.
Meanwhile, mandates absorb much of the state budget. Education, including universities, encompasses 48 percent, Medicaid takes up 29 percent and prisons account for 11 percent. Those three categories total 88 percent of the state’s budget, leaving lawmakers little space to cut without violating federal laws to provide required services.
Gila County remains stuck in a similar situation, with 75 percent of the budget funding cops, courts, public safety and the state’s Medicaid program.
County supervisors and management agreed that pursuing CSA’s laundry list of items would dilute the most important message to state lawmakers — don’t hand counties added expenses.
“Other than raising taxes — which I don’t see coming down the pipe — or shifting costs, there isn’t any place for them to go,” said Nelson about state lawmakers.
Supervisors discussed the proposals in preparation for an upcoming CSA meeting. County Manager Don McDaniel wondered how supervisors could voice their opinions effectively, potentially changing the direction of CSA’s lobbying efforts, instead of the din absorbing their voices.
Ultimately, officials decided that someone from the county would draft a position paper and supervisors would agree on a so-called “elevator speech” to pitch their point of view. Supervisors will also attempt to meet with other small-county supervisors to discuss future lobbying efforts.
Gila County has muddled through the recession by relying on reserves and instituting a wage and hiring freeze. The hiring freeze has saved about $2 million with its 10 percent vacancy rate. The county entered this year with $12 million in reserves.