Posted: Friday, June 12, 2015 11:09 am
FLORENCE — It’s no secret Pinal County is facing a financial crisis, and county leaders are now scrambling to find more revenue to keep the ship afloat.
People can argue over the reasons for the fiscal doom and gloom, but one thing is certain — the county’s reserve fund is dwindling fast. On May 27, the Board of Supervisors passed a preliminary budget with a proposed increase in the primary property tax from $3.79 to $3.99 per $100 of net assessed valuation.
The preliminary budget, which passed by a 3-2 vote, also includes a 4 percent across-the-board budget cut for all county departments, which follows a 2 percent budget cut passed earlier this year.
But it appears those moves aren’t enough. The board has determined it needs to find additional revenue sources if it’s going to stem the bleeding, partly because of continuing and new cuts to Pinal County estimated at $5.8 million as a result of the recently passed state budget.
The board held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the possibility of creating a jail district or a regional transportation authority.
Membership in a regional transportation authority would include Pinal County, every municipality in the county and Central Arizona Governments.
Under an existing half-cent road tax in Pinal County for transportation, annual revenues averaged about $16 million a year over the past decade. County Manager Greg Stanley said that revenue is divided among all the municipalities and the county.
The RTA would institute a separate half-cent excise tax, and all the revenue would go to the RTA. That revenue would likely be used on one of three large-scale transportation projects in the county — Interstate 11, a North-South corridor or an East-West parkway corridor.
This kind of tax must be approved by the voters, and board members were comfortable with that.
“If the voters in an election say, ‘Nope, it’s not important,’ then I think we, as the Board of Supervisors and leaders in the county, have to accept those results,” Smith said.
However, Smith added he hopes people will “realize the value” in voting to create a RTA and institute a half-cent excise tax. He said he’d like to see it put to a special election next March.
Smith said for Pinal County to be successful in economic development and reach its full potential, it will have to make that type of commitment.
Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, said he also supports moving forward with putting the RTA issue on the ballot.
“Transportation dollars are getting harder and harder to get,” he said. “We’re gonna have to figure out ways to fund some of these transportation projects. I’ve always said Pinal County is kind of transportation challenged, with our infrastructure.”
Supervisors were not as receptive to creating a jail district.
The jail district would provide revenue through an excise tax or a secondary property tax. An excise tax is usually included in the price of things like gasoline or hotel rooms.
Chris Keller, legal counsel for the Board of Supervisors, said jail districts are already in place in Coconino and Apache counties, but he added he didn’t know how much revenue the districts brought those counties.
Supervisor Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, said a jail district didn’t meet a couple of his criteria.
“I don’t want to add another tax, another burden to the people … unless there is some specific reason for doing so, or that it’s time-limited,” he said. “To me, neither one of these qualifications exist with a jail district.”
Smith said the revenue would go toward maintenance and operations for the Pinal County jail, which is already financed through the county general fund. He said the money should instead go toward specific projects.
In theory, a jail district would help pay for high costs associated with running the jail. But board Vice Chairman Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, said the county could help finance those costs another way.
The goal, he said, is to fill hundreds of beds that are empty at the jail after the cancellation of the county’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We’re currently, in some respects, through the Sheriff’s Office, working with the Department of Corrections to try to see if we can get a contract with the state of Arizona to fill 1,000 of those beds,” he said