Pima County to finalize $1.1 billion budget, Miller objects - The Explorer: News

Pima County to finalize $1.1 billion budget, Miller objects

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Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:00 am

A $1.1 billion budget has gone before the Pima County Board of Supervisors for final authorization this week. 

The tentative budget saw a divided 3-2 vote in a May 20 meeting, with supervisors Ray Carroll and Ally Miller taking issue with a proposal that would divert $1.75 million in road repair funds toward the construction of additional soccer fields at Kino Sports Complex.

Miller, who saw the remainder of her District 1 road funds swept earlier this year in a 4-1 board vote, said the county is not in a position to be taking on new expenses, particularly when it comes to the county’s $300 million roadway problem.

“I object due to the additional investment in fields and building out there when we cannot afford it,” she said. 

Miller said the county should instead be using the land to expand its tax base, particularly since the 167 acres on which the fields are to be located were originally slated for residential zoning.

“If this was a viable feasible economic development, I would understand that,” she said. “I love the game of soccer, but I don’t think it’s the best thing to be used for taxpayer money. It’s a non-essential core service. We need to ensure core services like roads and our sheriff’s department.” 

The county hopes the additional fields will continue to draw in revenues that in turn could be used toward roadways, but Miller said that position poses too much risk, and that every dollar allotted for roadwork should be used for exactly that.

A total of $5 million was allotted to be used toward road repair this year. If the new soccer fields are approved, that number will drop to $3.75 million.

In a budget presentation on May 20, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the tentative budget shows expenditures in the current fiscal year are down about $300 million, or 20 percent since 2007-2008. He asked the board to consider increasing primary property taxes by 62 cents, the revenues of which would be used in large part to increase the budget capacity of the Sheriff’s Department and aspects of the court systems. 

“If you look at the General Fund, which defines core services, many think parks and recreation and transportation are core services, but frankly, our core services are justice and law enforcement,” Huckelberry said, adding that those components make up about 60 percent of the General Fund each year. 

“We think parks are important, and roads are important, but when you look how counties in Arizona are structured, and regional obligations, they’re in justice and law enforcement,” Huckelberry said. 

In order to stay balanced without any layoffs, Huckelberry said the Sheriff’s Department would need at least a $5.6 million increase in funding. Other considerations when looking at a property tax increase include expenses related to the relocation of the Pima County Consolidated Courts in the 2014-2015 fiscal year. 

Huckelberry said much of the decrease in expenditures has come as the result of a few items, namely a reduction of 1,200 county employees over the span of about seven years, as well as savings from direct medical health care.

Since 2010, the county has seen a reduction in property taxes from about $298 million to $267 million this year. 

If passed, the property tax will increase from $3.66 per $100 assessed value to $3.94. 

The proposed budget also called for increases in taxes on behalf of the flood control district and library district, though those increases will only amount to a two-cent increase thanks to a reduced tax level for debt services of eight cents since the county has been successful in paying off between $50-$60 million annually for bond obligations derived in 1997, 2004 and 2006. 

Also included in the budget is a recommendation for an increase in compensation for county employees of two percent, or, as recommended by supervisors in a May 20 public meeting, an across-the-board $.50 raise. 

“We need to reward employees who have stuck with us during the recession,” Huckelberry said, adding that in order to do so, enough revenue income would be necessary.

“We don’t need to dig a hole by granting a raise and then not having the revenue to cover it,” he said. 

Along with numerous speakers from various departments, Judge Sarah Simmons of the Arizona Superior Court elaborated on the necessity of additional compensation in the court system during the May 20 meeting. 

“I speak for almost 1,400 employees of the superior court,” she said. “The court is essentially the culmination point for anything involved in the justice system. If you put more officers on the street, if you file more felony filings by the county attorney, if you change laws to make child welfare officers, (resulting) in more child dependency cases, you will increase the work of the court. That is our job, and we are glad to do it.”

That said, the workload and amount of vacancies in the court system make that job harder to do, she added.

“The compensation that is given to employees does not appropriately reflect the work they do,” she said. “According to the county’s own survey, county workers are paid about one percent below market, and court workers are paid 12 percent below market. This is not fair.” 

Miller called for the county to take a “significant look” at the pay for the justice department, and concurred with the rest of the board in exploring raises for that and other departments. 

Miller however stood alone on voting against the tentative budget, which passed 3-2. 

The 62-cent increase marks a 17 percent increase of last year’s tax rate, and is 24 percent higher than in fiscal year 2012-13. While Huckelberry said the hike is necessary to continue providing core services, Miller has stated she sees flaws with how the county spends its current revenues.

“Although most of us understand the need to live within our budget and adjust for non-essential spending, Pima County has not,” said Miller. “We must secure funds for vital services before we dole out tax dollars to the U of A and other non-critical areas. Another example of excessive spending is the $900,000 dollar Pima County communications/PR department. In comparison to other large counties, Pima County’s communications department is six times larger than the neighboring, similarly sized Pinal County Communications department. Non-essential spending must be addressed and until my fellow Supervisors are prepared to sit down, make some tough decisions and re-evaluate budget priorities, I fear our property taxes will not only continue to increase but the return on services from the county will further decline.”

The results of the final budget adoption were not available before press time. For more information, visit Pima County’s website at http://webcms.pima.gov/government/.

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