Gila County Peers Over Edge Of Fiscal Cliff

Officials bracing for massive cutbacks in crucial federal programs locally

Gila County Building in Payson

Gila County Building in Payson Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Gila County programs remain perched on the edge of a fiscal cliff along with everyone and everything else.

Grant-funded services and more will see drastic cuts if Washington fails to untie the knots in negotiations and resolve federal budget issues.

District One Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and Assistant County Manager John Nelson on Monday shared their concerns.

Among the programs at risk: prenatal care; child immunizations; grants to weatherize homes for low-income residents; grants to pay utility bills for the poor; workforce development grants and funding for Women, Infants & Children (WIC), which provides food, nutrition education and referrals for pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, and infants and children under age five.

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“These improvements were started in the 1980s, but they just moved the death traps around — they simply need to finish it.” Tommie Martin Gila County District 1 supervisor

“It’s all on the table,” Martin said.

“We’re against the wall all the time with these programs. More people need them all the time. They’re what we need to be doing at this time (with the state of the economy). These people are the edges of society and will be impacted more severely. That in turn will lead to increasing the already growing burden on the criminal justice system,” Martin said.

The county can provide some subsidy of the programs, but with the economy still stalled, the county hasn’t much to spare.

“This is not the year to do anything with property taxes. They will decrease as the assessed value decreases,” Nelson said.

“We have to wait and see. We don’t know what we’re up against,” Martin said.

She said the Arizona County Supervisors Association and the Eastern Counties Organization are also looking at how lack of action in Washington could impact programs, but no one really knows.

Some of the other funds at risk are the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which amounts to about $3 million for Gila County; and the Secure Rural Schools program, which is about $1.5 million and goes to school districts, Martin said.

She added that the supervisors may have to react to some of the cuts, but cannot replace the money for most of the federally supported programs.

Some optimism

Still, Martin and Nelson hope the supervisors association can get get the state to restore money swept from the counties in past years to balance the state budget. The group is lobbying for the state to return a share of lottery funds to counties — Gila’s share is about $550,000 a year. Martin said that would go a long way to easing the blow to the social programs at risk.

The association is also lobbying to eliminate the state sweep of Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) money the Legislature used to prop up the budget for the Department of Public Safety.

“Because of that (sweep), counties are mostly doing deferred maintenance on their roads. For every dollar taken away, it takes nine times as much to do the job later,” Nelson said. Gila County each year loses about $342,000 of its HURF money to DPS, he said.

Another proposal would bring about $350,000 to Gila and Santa Cruz counties to help the provisional community colleges serving their residents. Currently both are at a severe disadvantage because of state funding formulas that create a massive gap between what the provisional colleges receive compared to the traditional community colleges.

Martin said the Eastern Counties Organization, which includes Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Apache and Navajo counties, is working to have the Association of Governments realigned. The small rural counties are affiliated with larger counties and consequently see a limited amount of the money and services that come through the Association of Governments.

“We’re shoved aside for funding and functions,” Martin said.

Gila is aligned with Pinal, where just one community has a population larger than the entire county. Graham and Greenlee are with Cochise; Apache and Navajo with Coconino. All are suffering the same difficulties as Gila County in getting their share of funding when yolked to counties with much larger populations.

“We’re poor, uneducated, unemployed and unhealthy. We’re as poor as Appalachia,” Martin said. She added these purely rural counties have a maximum of public lands and a minimum of private resources.

She said with realignment, the ECO members would present a united, regional group, not just an affiliation of counties. As a region there would be a stronger voice for transportation and infrastructure support and education at all levels. It could also make it possible to pool resources that are getting scarce, she said.

The ECO members are already moving toward creating the regional front and away from its original purpose of managing natural resources.

“Getting the Association of Governments realigned will take time,” Nelson said. It will be a decision for the governor, he added.

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