NAVAJO COUNTY — Every year, one in five Navajo County workers finds another job and bangs out through the workplace door.
That can’t go on without crippling the county’s ability to provide services to its 110,000 residents, Paul Watson, county economic development director told the Navajo County Board of Supervisors this week at a work-study session.
The problem stems from stagnant wages since the Great Recession and rising competition for workers from private businesses and other government agencies, Brian Layton told the board of supervisors who scheduled the wide-ranging study session at the Ak-Chin Casino in Maricopa, right before the start of the Arizona County Supervisor’s Association convention, the chief lobbying group for counties statewide.
Both Apache and Navajo counties opted to have board study sessions at the resort on the Gila Reservation on Monday, Oct. 28, while most other supervisors and staff ventured forth on field trips. Both boards discussed posted agenda items, mostly related to budget updates. No members of the public attended either work study sessions, which were open to the public and the media.
A reporter for the White Mountain Independent shuffled back and forth to the two study sessions, which each lasted from about 11 a.m. to about 3 p.m.
The board didn’t vote on anything during the study session. Some county-watchers had complained about the difficulty of attending the out-of-town meeting. The session was mostly intended to foster informal discussions on a wide range of issues, since the supervisors and county staff were already attending the statewide County Supervisor’s Association meeting.
Layton said voter approval of the creation of a jail tax district has injected $2.5 million annually into the general fund, averting more staff layoffs. However, that money will simply replace sales and property tax revenue lost due to the closure of the Kayenta Coal Mine on the Navajo Reservation and the looming shutdown of the final two units of the Cholla Power Plant near Snowflake.
The county still faces daunting challenges, including a $12-million deficit in the payments it owes for police and firefighter pensions and proposed changes in state law that in the upcoming year will likely shift another $1 million in cost from state programs to the counties, administrators told the supervisors. This year the conference included a chance to vote on lobbying priorities and sessions on state budget prospects.
Fortunately, overall sales tax revenues have finally returned to the level they hit in 2009 before the recession. That will provide enough money to either boost salaries for existing workers or add staff lost after the recession – but not both, said Layton.
Adding to the complexity of the picture, the phased in, voter-mandated increase in the minimum wage by next year will have boosted low-end salaries from $8 an hour to about $12 per hour. This will help workers at the low end, but also compresses the pay scale so that people with years of experience with the county won’t be making much more than new hires.
As a result, the county’s losing workers and having a hard time recruiting replacements.
Layton said other government agencies including cities, towns and the state didn’t go as far as Navajo County in eliminating cost of living, merit pay and seniority raises during the recession – so the county’s having a hard time competing.
“If you look at Show Low and Lakeside – they’re not in the same position because they’ve been utilizing these tools for the past 12 years,” said Layton.
Layton said the county will likely get more benefit from rewarding existing employees rather than adding employees. That would mean things like adding a modest pay bump each year for experience as well as extra pay for things like hazardous weather conditions – like operating a snowplow all night in a storm.
For the most part, the supervisors agreed – although the initial proposal doesn’t yet have a price tag.
The county’s general fund budget amounts to about $44 million, with the bulk of the money going to salaries. The county provides planning and zoning and roads in unincorporated areas as well as police protection through the sheriff’s department. The county also administers a host of state and federal programs to provide healthcare, welfare and an array of other services – including financial services to school districts, tax collections, drug enforcement and jails.
Layton warned the supervisors they will also have to deal with pleas from department heads and the public for more services – which means more employees.
“Our staffing has been cut in almost every department every year for the past 12 years. That’s a tough position to be in. They can’t provide all the services that they’d like to. They’re struggling with turnover. Their staff is leaving for relatively low increases in pay. But as we look forward, focusing on our existing workforce will do us a lot of good. If we start adding staff, that will ease the workload – but it won’t do anything to retain the people we have. If we focus on rewarding existing staff, it will help retain our best people – and help us recruit when people do leave.”
He presented a chart showing that between 1997 and 2009, the county provided 3-5 percent increases almost every year, including general salary adjustments, inflation and an experience pay adjustment of almost 2 percent in most years.
The routine increases stopped in 2010. Employees got one 2.5 percent increase in 2012 and a 2 percent inflation increase in 2014 – but otherwise faced a virtual wage freeze on top of the steady decline in total employees.
“It makes a difference when you can offer merit pay increases,” said Layton. “Even a tiny bit makes a difference. A supervisor can say, ‘you’re killing it. You’re doing a great job. We want to recognize that,’” said Layton.
Supervisor Jason Whiting agreed. “We’re very lean in the way of employees. We don’t want to go out and hire additional employees – we want to retain the ones we’ve got. That’s what I’m hearing from you guys. You don’t want to lose one good employee and find out you have to hire two people to replace him.”
Supervisor Steve Williams also agreed. “It’s a long overdue discussion. I think most people would rather carry a heavier workload and be compensated. We want to make the county an environment where they want to work – and compensation is one way to do that.”
The counties remain the vital middleman for delivery of a host of state and federal services, in addition to providing planning and police services for the vast sprawl of unincorporated territory. As a result, the county has many state-imposed mandates, but relatively little control over its revenue.
Navajo County Supervisors Lee Jack, Jesse Thompson, Jason Whiting and Steve Williams attended a board study session.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org