By Linda Kor–
As Navajo County administration plans for the upcoming year, a lot of the effort will involve talking to state legislators regarding the impacts of funding cuts and prisoner shifts. There will be little in the way of capital improvements, but with modest increases in sale tax revenues, county officials hope to maintain current staff, determine what vacancies need to be filled and what others can be left vacant for the time being.
“Things are looking better. Revenues are up over the last fiscal year, which allowed for the restoration of wages that we were able to do this year,” explained County Manager Jimmy Jayne.
He noted that his administration had no expectations going into the year of what the budget would allow, but after six months of viewing revenues on a daily basis, determined that this was something that the county needed to do. “We felt like we had progressed enough that we could sustain the increase and not cut it again. We’re not sure yet about employee related expenses,” he said.
The basis for a majority of the county’s uncertainty of revenues is a combination of Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) cuts, the proposed prison shift and the potential for the county to be mandated to make contributions to the state, something the five largest counties in the state Maricopa, Pima, Mohave, Pinal and Yavapai, are already being called upon to do.
The HURF cuts to Navajo County alone have totaled approximately $3 million in the last fiscal year, but Jayne believes educating legislators on the impacts of that loss in funding is having an effect. “We are asking the legislature to take no more HURF funding. We have 733 miles of roads to maintain in this county and have a phenomenal public works team, but we need the funds to maintain those roads,” he said.
Finance Director James Menlove was quick to point out that although funding may eventually be restored, it will likely be less than it has been in the past. The formula for determining how much HURF funding is provided to each county is based on fuel sales and a census formula. While fuel sales may increase, the census formula shows that the county population increased by 10 percent, but other areas increased more, meaning less money to Navajo County.
Though Navajo County is not being asked to make the state mandated contributions to the state that the five largest counties are, Jayne feels that it’s only a matter of time until that comes to the smaller counties, and that all counties need to work together to let the state know this cannot continue. “The state cannot continue to balance their budget on the backs of local government. The only way to address this is through education of the facts,” he asserted.
Another concern is the proposed prisoner shift that will go into effect on July 1 unless the state can be convinced that this is not a viable option for saving money. With this shift prisoners sentenced in Navajo County with one year left on their sentence in the Department of Corrections, regardless of what their crimes were, will be transferred to the county jail to complete that sentence. “We would incur 100 percent of the cost to house these inmates; this is just a hidden way to transfer the cost to the counties,” stated Jayne.
Although the county was able to restore wages to its employees, there are still many jobs that are being left vacant either through reduction in force (RIF) or attrition. Since 2009 there have been 30 jobs vacated to RIFs and another 40 to 50 through attrition, with existing employees taking on additional tasks in order to preserve finances. “We have a terrific workforce and employees are being great as they are asked to do more. We also feel this is a good experience for employees, allowing them to learn additional skills,” Jayne added.
In the near future both county employees and the public will reap the benefit of a new digitized information system being implemented by the county assessor and the public works department. The service will allow planning and zoning permits available to be viewed online. In addition, the online parcel search will become more user friendly.
As Jayne awaits the outcome of the redistricting map selection, he has not had any questions or concerns voiced to him by the Department of Justice regarding the maps submitted on Dec. 19. The final notification on the maps is not anticipated until Feb. 19.
Regarding the jail facilities, the county is hoping to make up for the loss of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) contract that removed $2 million from its coffers by entering into contracts with other law enforcement agencies.
Jayne is hopeful that contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service, and Immigration and Customs will come to fruition in order to make up for that loss. “The funds from the BOP paid for 34 salaries at the jail. We can’t eliminate 34 positions just because some of the inmates are gone. We’re hoping this will offset that cost,” explained Jayne.
In addition, the county will be looking at adding new kitchen, medical and laundry facilities to the jail in the upcoming year. The current situation is inadequate for the inmate population and involves transporting inmates to local medical facilities for routine visits. “Those facilities were made to serve 70 inmates. That doubled, then we added two more pods and now have 420 inmates. This creates risks in the facility and it’s expensive,” he said.
A possibility for funding an expansion of the jail facility could include refinancing of the 2000 bonds. According to Menlove, the current interest rate on the bonds is from six percent to 6¼ percent. He believes that refinancing would reduce the rate to four percent since the audits are caught up and the county is in a stronger position. “Our bond rating is the highest possible for a rural county. I think the responsible way to finance this would be to go the underwriters and look at what the payment would be,” stated Menlove.
A project that was slated for last year and will likely come about this year is the installation of solar generators at the complex in Holbrook. The use of solar would greatly reduce the utility costs for the large facility, with the funding for the generators to be included in the monthly utility bill at a reduction over the current cost, with greater savings to be had once the cost of the project is met.
When asked about his impression of the future of Navajo County regarding the industry slated to come to the region, Jayne expressed support for the potential. “These new industries will bring jobs, construction and commerce to our area, especially to Holbrook and the Snowflake/Taylor areas,” stated Jayne, adding that he is excited regarding the proposed potash mining and the hundreds of jobs those operations will bring. “It’s a real blessing to the region. I’m hoping that the outcome of the 4FRI (Four Forest Restoration Initiative) contract will be announced by next month. This will bring health to our forests and put people to work. We have a lot to look forward to in the future.”