Gila County is bracing for a $770,000 hit from state lawmakers to its already strained 2011-12 budget, forcing yet another raid on its dwindling reserves.
Next year, the impact could balloon to a $2 million blow if the state follows through on a threat to transfer state prisoners back to the county.
All told, Arizona counties are girding for a $150 million gouging buried in the fine print of the state’s precariously balanced budget for the current fiscal year.
The immediate losses will divert county gas tax money to pay for the state Department of Public Safety and force counties to pay the hospital bills for criminal suspects who need treatment before they are ruled sane enough to stand trial.
“When we worked with the government, we tried to confirm the fiscal impact to the counties because we never believed the counties wouldn’t be affected. But the state shifted $150 million to the counties causing an outcry from county lawmakers,” Craig Sullivan, executive director of the County Supervisors Association (CSA), reported to the Gila County Board of Supervisors at their meeting on June 28.
“The state (legislators have) decreased revenues and increased programs to the counties without offering a way to pay for them,” said Gila County Deputy County Manager John Nelson.
Crafting the state budget behind closed doors, legislators shifted programs onto counties. These programs include transferring hundreds of inmates from state prisons to county jails while increasing counties’ financial responsibilities for law enforcement and judicial services.
Gila County supervisors reacted with anger to the possibility they may have to accept the transfer of 81 prisoners who have committed violent crimes or repeated felonies.
The prisoner transfer would blow a $2 million hole in the county’s $39 million general fund budget.
“This state prisoner shift is wrong. We don’t operate prisons in our county jails,” said Supervisor Shirley Dawson.
“What they’d like us to do is write a check,” said Supervisor Tommie Martin.
Sullivan, whose organization lobbies on behalf of the state’s counties, said the association managed to convince lawmakers to postpone the prisoner shift until next year.
The other state budget shuffles will hit the county immediately, forcing a dip into the county’s painfully hoarded reserve fund. Nelson said the reserves will be gone in another year or two.
The other major shifts in costs from state to county are:
• $342,221 to pay for the Department of Public Safety;
• $383,812 in Rural Restoration to Competency, which previously paid the state mental hospital bills for criminal defendants who had to be treated before they were sane enough to stand trial;
• $37,682 in justice of the peace salaries; and
• $7,287 to provide attorneys for defendants who cannot afford to pay for their own defense.
Payment for these services will come from a mixture of Highway User Revenue Funds (HURF) and property taxes, said Nelson.
“The state claims they have balanced the budget. They’ve balanced a financial statement, but not the budget by shifting programs and cost burden onto the counties,” said Martin.