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NAVAJO & APACHE COUNTIES — So if you’re bleeding out from a thousand cuts – what should you do?

Just slap on band-aids as fast as you can.

And that’s the gist of the report the head of the County Supervisors Association has offered to Apache and Navajo counties.

The state has ever so slowly started to restore at least some of the hundreds of millions in recession-era cuts that left many counties teetering on the brink of the budget abyss. For instance, Navajo County now faces staff cuts of 20 percent if voters reject a plea to raise the sales tax.

County Supervisors Association Executive Director Craig Sullivan said the lobbying group for Arizona counties spent most of its time during the recently concluded legislative session trying to stop bills that would have further strained counties.

But by the time the smoke cleared, most counties had either held their own or made modest gains – after years of state-induced cuts and cost-shifting.

Lawmakers introduced 1,318 bills of which 331 passed. A whopping 210 of those bill will affect county operations. Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed 11 bills, although fellow Republicans had complete control of what got through the legislature.

“Our core priority is the budget,” Sullivan told the Apache County Board of Supervisors at a recent meeting. “We want to permanently relieve the counties of some of these burdens.”

Sullivan touted the bottom-line impact of a handful of bills – either “bad” bills safely buried or helpful bills that somehow slipped through.

The running tally of savings included $376,000 for Apache County and $429,000 for Navajo County, he said.

The impact the state budget on county government hints at the enormous range of county responsibilities. More than half of county budgets goes for programs over which they have little actual control – like the local programs run for the Department of Economic Security, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System or Department of Health Services or collecting and passing along money for special taxing districts.

This means the state can help balance its budget by siphoning money from the counties. So during the recession, state lawmakers started charging counties a lot more money to send juveniles to the state lockup in Phoenix, send mentally ill offenders to the state mental hospital until they’re sane enough to stand trial, fund state pensions and collect sales tax. Worse yet, the counties have also found themselves paying more for their share of programs like ALTEC, which pays nursing home bills for the impoverished, disabled elderly. The program accounts for about 25 percent of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment system – which provides medical coverage for nearly a third of the residents of the three-county region.

Months of lobbying and a swelling state budget surplus allowed the County Supervisors Association to claw back some of that money. The booming state economy has centered on the big, urban counties. That means it boosted state revenues, but has left many rural counties still struggling.

Still, the session included some gains.

For instance, the state agreed to reduce how much it charges counties to send juveniles into the state-run lockup system. Navajo and Apache counties have shut down their juvenile lockups due to costs. The changes this year will save the counties statewide $11 million, including a gain of $126,000 for Apache County and $189,000 for Navajo County.

Moreover, lawmakers reduced employer contributions to the Elected Officials Retirement Plan, which became severely underfunded during the recession. Courts rejected efforts to trim benefits for the system, which also provides pensions for judges. Lawmakers this year changed formulas, which will save Apache and Navajo counties $250,000 each.

The counties still face huge, unfunded liabilities in plans for state employees, elected officials, police officers and firefighters. For instance, many towns and counties have to contribute to the pension fund an amount equal to about 40 percent of an officer’s salary. So a police officer making $50,000 requires an additional pension contribution of $20,000.

Still, the $250,000 reduction helps.

The counties will also get more money to conduct the presidential primary and operate their probation departments…

But it’s still a losing battle on other fronts, with state lawmakers still focused on continued corporate and individual income taxes and rebuilding the depleted reserve fund.

So most of the county gains will get wiped out – or diminished – by other changes, mostly the rising cost of medical programs.

Sullivan said the lobbying group played a role in defeating 40 “bad” bills – and won passage of four bills it supported.

“We were looking at 800 bills that would have touched county operations in some way and our staff processes them all. Overwhelmingly, the bills we were concerned with were modified – which is a testament to the work you are doing with your state delegations. That really helped create the leverage for us to address the bad bills.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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