Mar 022012

By Linda Kor —

Navajo County will be taking an extra $500,000 hit to the fiscal year 2013 budget due to changes made to the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS) last year that have been ruled unconstitutional. The legislature, as a cost saving measure and to have taxpayers pay less for public-employee pensions, increased the contribution rate for ASRS members from 50 percent to 53 percent. The move was designed to save the state more than $41 million this year.

However, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Eileen Willett ruled last month that the move ignored a provision in the Arizona Constitution, which spells out that membership in a public retirement system is a contract, and that benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.” As a result, employees who contributed to ASRS last year will receive a refund of the extra three percent they contributed. That refund and the inclusion of the additional three percent for the return to the 50/50 contribution for the next fiscal year results in the extra $500,000 that the county will need to include in the budget.

That burden adds to another difficult budget year for the county finance department, which, as of Feb. 27, showed the county as barely hovering in the black at $4,500 under budget. “It’s pretty tight,” admitted Finance Director James Menlove, adding that he expects slow growth throughout the state over the next several years and that analysts are projecting 2015 to be the year that balance will come in the state budget.

Menlove will begin meeting with department heads later this month to review preliminary budget estimates, and he’s asking departments for very specific, detailed accounts of needs and priorities in order to make the most of available funding.

“This will be the fifth year that we have gone without spending money for capital projects. That means that our computers are at least five years old and that while sheriff’s office vehicles are doing OK, other department vehicles are getting old and this brings challenges,” stated Menlove.

Supervisor David Tenney lauded Menlove, County Manager Jimmy Jayne and the Finance Department for their diligence in staying within the budget. “Not every municipality, county or city can say that,” he noted.

Tenney then informed the board that he has been spending a great deal of time in Phoenix, four trips in seven days last week alone, working with the governor’s people, and House and Senate leaders regarding the needs of the county. “The news is not so bad. There are still struggles at the state, but the three main issues for Navajo County are being discussed,” stated Tenney, referring to the prisoner shift, mandatory county contributions and a freeze on the amounts being withdrawn from Highway Users Revenue Fund (HURF) money.

He explained that a bill in the Senate regarding HURF funding would roll back $4 million to Arizona counties if it should go all the way through for final approval, but there is no certainty of that at this point. Tenney did have concerns that the state is being pushed by certain undisclosed individuals to return HURF funds taken previously by the state. He explained that a hard effort is being made to have a freeze at current levels and the effort is looking positive, but to ask for a refund of revenues may work against the endeavor. “We shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds us if they’re meeting us this far,” he stated.

Another bill being addressed by the Senate is the public intoxication bill, which heads for its third reading this week. According to Tenney, work is still being done on the language of the bill, as it is uncertain if there will be enough votes to pass the Senate in its current wording. (SB1082 passed the Senate that day.)

Chairman J.R. DeSpain informed the board that he had been hearing concerns that the bill is meant to be a jail-filler, but that is not the case. “We just want a tool to battle public intoxication. I would just like provisions for rapid return so that these individuals don’t keep coming back,” he said.

County Attorney Brad Carlyon added that the objective is to change the issue to a public health concern instead of a jail concern. The current consideration is to have individuals picked up for public intoxication to be held in a detoxification facility 24 hours for the first offense, 48 hours for the second offense and 72 hours for the third offense.

DeSpain mentioned that the City of Scottsdale is now also on board with the bill, but Carlyon explained that Scottsdale’s needs are different and that city’s officials likely will not want the same regulations.

“It’s not the same issue. Public intoxication in Scottsdale is primarily 20-plus year old males having a night out, not the type of concerns we are having here,” said the county attorney.

Another bill that’s made its way through the House and is on its way to the Senate this week is the “buy local” bill. According to Tenney this bill is expected to pass without opposition. If the bill should clear the House and receive the governor’s stamp of approval, it would allow for a five percent preference for bids to local businesses for purchases over $50,000 for items such as vehicles.

In other action Feb. 28, the board:

* Approved an expenditure in an amount not to exceed $2,500 from Local Transportation Assistance Fund II for vehicle operating expenses for Alice’s Place, Inc., a domestic violence center located in Winslow.

* Approved a special use permit for Apache District Wind Farm, LLC to place a temporary meteorological tower with a height of approximately 198’ on a footprint of approximately 2.9 acres located approximately 13 miles southwest of Holbrook.

* Approved a zone change from Rural-20 to Rural-10 on 12 land parcels comprising approximately 235 acres in the White Mountain Lake Area.