By Tammy Gray
Like businesses and individuals everywhere, one of the biggest priorities for Navajo County in 2014 will be making sure sufficient funds are available to meet obligations and complete projects.
Securing endangered federal PILT funds (payment in lieu of taxes) is a top priority. The program is intended to make up for lost revenue due to an inability to collect taxes on federally owned land. In Arizona, 42.1 percent of the land is owned by the federal government and qualifies for PILT funding. In Navajo County, it added $1.4 million to the general fund in fiscal year 2013.
Navajo County Manager Jimmy Jayne explained that tribal lands are not included in the total, so only 9.5 percent of the total land in the county qualifies for PILT payments.
“That still equates to $1.4 million to the general fund that we do not have a replacement for,” he said.
Government Relations Administrator Hunter Moore explained that the county, along with other agencies and groups, will push hard in the first few months of 2014 to make sure the PILT funding is secure.
“It’s our largest funding source from the federal government,” Moore said. “It really is a big hole in the budget if it’s not reauthorized.”
In addition to the push to secure PILT funding, county officials are also working at the state level to reinstate full Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) distributions to cities and counties. Jayne noted that this fiscal year, approximately $750,000 that would have been distributed to the county was diverted to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Moore explained that there is a concerted effort among cities and counties across the state to have HURF distributions restored in the coming year.
“We’re trying to keep the roads and the equipment in good shape, but at some point you just can’t make the money stretch far enough,” he said.
The county also lost an important source of general fund revenue in January when the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) ended a contract with the sheriff’s office to house state prisoners. Jayne explained that the move was not unexpected, since a new DOC facility was recently completed, but county officials are still looking for ways to replace that income. Sheriff KC Clark has been working on an agreement with the White Mountain Apache Tribe to house its inmates as a partial solution.
In other respects, Navajo County’s income is looking better in 2014 than it has in recent years. Jayne noted that both state shared revenues and local sales tax revenues have increased. State shared revenues are up by about eight percent compared to last year, while county sales tax is about seven percent better than last year.
“We’ve seen a turnaround in the collection of state shared revenues and county sales tax,” Jayne said. “It’s still not near the previous levels, but it’s headed in the right direction.”
He pointed out, however, that the entire county and its residents are still feeling the impact of the closure of the Catalyst paper mill.
Moore noted that one study estimated the loss to the region in the tens of millions of dollars.
“It’s dramatic,” Moore said. “Especially for residents in the Heber-Overgaard and Snowflake/Taylor areas. We continue to hope that something will happen with the Catalyst facility. It’s a great resource.”
Despite some economic uncertainties, the county has found ways to move several projects forward in 2014, including a $4.5 million expansion of jail facilities and construction of a $4.9 million public works complex. The jail project is expected to be complete within the next six months and was funded by refinancing existing bonds. The public works complex is expected to be fully functional by November, and was funded by road and flood control monies.
“There is no general fund money in this building,” Jayne said. “That’s a question a lot of people have asked, and it’s a fair question.”
Long-term projects, such as Winslow levee rehabilitation and the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) will continue to move forward in 2014.
Jayne noted that the county’s goal is to have the feasibility study for the Winslow levee, which was started in 2008, complete by the end of 2014. County staff cannot complete the study independently, but must work closely with representatives in Washington. D.C., who approve funding for the project in increments, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which performs the study.
Moore explained, “This continues to be a top priority for Navajo County. We have a continuous dialogue with the Corps of Engineers to make sure that this continues to be a priority for the corps.”
Once the feasibility study is complete, engineering and construction work can begin.
In addition to major public projects, in 2014 county officials will focus on innovative healthcare solutions for employees and taking full advantage of new technology.
Jayne explained that rising healthcare costs and limited provider resources have led the county to consider establishing a health center at the county complex through a partnership with Summit Healthcare. The initial proposal will go before the board of supervisors in March.
If approved, the center will serve employees and their dependents as a primary healthcare clinic, and may possibly be open for services to the public at a later date.
“Government cannot continue to do business in the same way. Government has got to become more efficient,” Jayne said. “But we also have 600-plus employees and their families that we need to be mindful of. This is a very innovative medical plan.”
A new program that allows public works staff to transmit road reports directly to computer software using a cell phone will be expanded in 2014 to include road signs. Jayne explained that the phone application, designed specifically for the county, will save time, increase accuracy and reduce liability.
Instead of writing down information or filling out forms to later be uploaded into the computer, public works staff can take photographs and enter data, including global positioning system (GPS) coordinates, to automatically create a permanent electronic record.
“There’s a lot of liability associated with road signs,” Jayne explained. “It’s important to document everything and this builds an electronic record.”
He explained that although programs like the road sign smart phone application were built for public works, the idea is spreading to other departments, and county officials are looking at new ways to use technology to reduce staff time spent on paperwork and improve service to citizens.
“We’re looking forward to a good 2014,” Jayne said.
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By Tammy Gray