Prop 419

Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark and Assistant Navajo County Manager Bryan Layton discuss the jail tax at the Trumped Store in September, 2018.

NAVAJO COUNTY — Navajo County’s going slowly, steadily broke.

The number of employees has dwindled 16 percent, its vehicle fleet is breaking down, it has to skimp on road maintenance. Last year, the county ran so short of money it abandoned the county attorney’s effort to help spouses collect child support from deadbeat parents.

During the recession, the county lost millions of dollars in tax revenue, compounded by the shift of millions in state responsibilities to the county. This forced the county to cut its $43-million general fund to the bone, according to Assistant County Manager Bryan Layton.

So how would creating a jail district funded by one-third of a cent increase in the sales tax help avert the need to cut staff by another 20 percent?

After all, we definitely don’t need more jails.

So how will a jail district help?

It just doesn’t seem logical.

That’s pretty much what voters concluded last year when they rejected the whole confusing idea by about 162 votes.

In truth, Navajo County’s jail district finagle represented a creative solution to a looming problem – which required no less than a special state law to make possible.

Voters will get a chance to vote again on Proposition 421 in a couple of weeks. The measure will form a jail district, raise the sales tax and bring in about $3.5 million annually.

However, thanks to a state law that basically applies only to Navajo County, about $2.5 million of that new money will replace what the county’s already spending on its jail. Another $1 million will go to the cities in the region that are currently paying to use the jail.

That means the county can use the $2.5 million it was spending on the jail to prevent deep cuts in existing services due to the loss of tax money stemming from the imminent closure of the Kayenta Coal Mine and the Cholla coal-fired power plant.

Already hard-pressed, the county has been casting about desperately for a way to avert disaster when it loses $2.5 million in revenue from closure of the mine and power plant.

The county has few options when it comes to raising extra cash and is also legally mandated to provide most of its services, administering state and federal programs like the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the gas-tax supported road building and maintenance and superior and municipal courts. Taxpayers years ago capped the county’s property tax rate, which can only increase at 2 percent annually. The county gets half a cent of the sales tax now, but can’t raise that either. Fees are already too high.

Creative work-around

So county officials had a brainstorm.

Why not take advantage of the state law that allows the county to set up a jail tax district, supported by sales tax? Only problem: The law requires any money raised by the tax for a jail district has to go straight to the jails. The law even specifies that the new money from the tax can’t replace whatever the county was already spending on jails.

That provision would make the creation of a jail district useless in solving the budget problem.

So county officials went to work down at the capital, hoping to cajole the legislature into granting it an exemption that would allow the county to replace the money they were already spending with the new sales tax money. That could avert layoffs affecting 20 percent of the county workforce.

“It took a lot of trips down to the capitol,” said Layton, who’s been assistant county manager for three years. “I personally presented four or five times in front of subcommittees, educating them, telling them we have to have a tool.”

“Sen. Sylvia Allen was very supportive. The entire delegation was very supportive. We got it passed about three years ago because we knew this was coming and it was the only tool we had left.”

They had to argue every detail of their case. They started out asking for .333333 of a cent increase. But lawmakers held them to .33 of a cent.

Layton noted, “we tried to get a little more,” but “it will give us $2.5 million – that’s a net number.”

Winslow, Holbrook, Taylor, Snowflake and Show Low will divide up about $1 million in reduced fees they pay to place town prisoners in the county jail – mostly people awaiting trial or a bail hearing.

“The supervisors can lower the rate, but they can’t increase it above the .33 cents. It’s good for 20 years.”

That is, if voters approve formation of the jail district, said Layton.

Education

Ironically, it’s probably confusing to even mention jails and juvenile detention when talking about Proposition 421. And that kind of makes the point of asking voters a second time will create a jail district, which is really a creative work-around to avert a budget crisis that has nothing at all to do with jails. That’s what a host of public officials told county officials after the narrow defeat of the measure last year.

“Supervisor Steve Williams when we first got the election results last year said, ‘this is the voice of the people. We have to move forward.’ But he got a lot of feedback – friends and neighbors who said they didn’t really understand what they were voting for. We held a meeting – we had 40 officials come – every police chief, nearly all the fire districts, several school districts, every city and town council. They all told us they heard the same thing – people didn’t understand the proposition. We had to use certain language about constructing jails and people really got hung up on that,” said Layton.

So now voters will once again the fate of the county’s budget finagle, which required years of effort, foresight and a new state law.

Just remember, the Jail District isn’t about jails at all. It’s really about whether the county should slash public services — from sheriff’s patrols to processing deeds in the recorder’s office.

“Sadly, if this doesn’t pass, we’re going to have to make some big reductions. We’ve already cut staffing by 16 percent. So if you’ve got an office with one or two or three people in it – you can’t cut another one without really affecting services,” said Layton.

Reach the editor at

tbalcom@wmicentral.com

(8) comments

kennybwillis@gmail.com

They are also increasing your property taxes.......and they pick and choose who they hit the hardest. Don't believe me, do some research. My wages were cut 5000.00 this year....time for the county to do likewise.

geatkin

Excuse me... there is nothing confusing about raising taxes. When the power plants close and people lose their jobs, where is this proposed increase supposed to come from? If we the tax-paying citizen has to cut expenses in order to make our finite amount of money last the month, why can't government agencies do the same? Now, they are between a rock and a hard place. They have run out of other people's money and the coffers are bare. Welcome to the real world. I will not be voting for this tax increase. Thank you for listening. ~E. Atkin, Lakeside, AZ

2rusty

Thanks, E. Atkin, for helping me to clarify my thoughts upon reading these two articles. I agree with you that the County, like ALL government agencies, is probably bloated and inefficient. Not picking on Navajo Co. in saying this, because I live here and support them whenever possible. I suspect that one of the greatest financial burdens that the county has to cover are the liabilities of retirement and pension funds for the excess of employees who have been put on these plans. I hope I'm wrong and that Navajo Co. hasn't overly committed to that public employee gravy train. But an ADDITIONAL .30 tax on every $100. spent really adds up for many of us.

Octane

It's hard to continue reading this article with credibility past the line of "It just don’t seem logical."

I know majority of the population really does not concern themselves with jail inmates...( unless their family member is "in custody" & sometimes not even then), however, the confining entity, whether it County, State or Federal, has a legal obligation to provide a clean, safe & secure environment for all detainees. Currently there are several issues of concern failing in all of those areas (& more) in our County Jails here in the White Mountains. 1. Torn, faded & tattered jumpsuits pose numerous safety & security risks. 2. Worn out, torn & tattered blankets also pose the same issues of safety & security to staff & detainees. 3. It is my understanding that the detainees are made to use laundry pods to bathe/shower with... these pods are harmful to the skin due to the concentration of the contents. 4. Inadequate cleaning supplies will eventually lead to diseases that could be transferred to civilian life when a detainee is released. These concerns are ONLY a FEW of MANY that currently exist in our WMtn. Jails... If this law passes... there better be a long look at the care, custody & control of the adjudicated & non-adjudicated safety, security & health & welfare... this includes the medical treatment (or lack thereof) that detainees in our Jails are entitled to by Law but are not receiving, especially new arrivals. They better take a good look at what our facilities need. Neglect & poor safety & lack of care & concern is a recipe for a disaster. Fix it before there comes a greater need for raising funds from security, safety, control & custody failures.

longtimeresident

I understand the frustration of people who will vote no on this matter as their budgets may be tight and they want the County to live within its' budget. I respect E. Atkins' comment but I do think this idea deserves another look. Much of the County budget is mandated to cover certain services. I am sure there are still ways to save some money but it does seem to me that the County is making tough choices with the money they do have left. I think a minor sales tax that our visitors will help pay for may be the fairest way to pay for this. No one likes tax increases but I would not like to see the Navajo County budget cut so much that much needed services would be affected even more. I am still considering voting for it it even though I was against it the first time.

libertyminded

This new “jail district sales tax,” really isn’t about jails at all. Instead, it is a sham sales tax jail district to support County general fund activities and expenditures including salaries and benefits in any other County Department(s). We the people, just voted this same thing down in November. It is a dirty, rotten, sneaky trick to call an election for the week of Labor Day, anyway. This should be voted down,… again.

GraceAZ

I would like to see the Tribe be financially accountable for their population who frequent the Navajo County Jail System. I assume they will not be paying any taxes toward this effort.

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