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.
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.
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.