ST. JOHNS — After seven years, a property tax override will again come before voters in Apache County on November 7.
The ballot measure will request that voters approve an additional $2 million in property taxes annually beginning in fiscal year 2019-2020 and every year after that for the next six years. An additional $200,000 to cover inflationary growth will be included with the $2 million for six years, according to the language that will be included on the ballot.
The last tax override ballot measure was turned down by Apache County voters in 2011. According to Apache County Manager Ryan Patterson, the county had an annual $3.5 million tax override in place for the 14 years prior to 2012.
The property tax override will add 29.86 cents to the current tax for every $100 of limited net assessed property value, According to Patterson.
Patterson said that the average property value for the county is $76,000. For a property valued at $76,000 the tax will add an additional $22.89 annually to the property tax bill.
Sixty-eight percent of the new tax will be paid by commercial entities such as the Coronado and Springerville power plants.
The Apache County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to place the property tax override on the ballot at the April 17 meeting of the board. District I Supervisor Joe Shirley Jr. and District II Supervisor Alton Joe Shepherd voted to approve the measure, but former District 3 Supervisor Doyel Shamley voted against the measure.
The possibility of a tax override was first discussed at a supervisor’s work session held last spring in Ganado on April 2. According to the minutes of the meeting, supervisors Shepherd and Shirley stated they thought the override was needed and should go before the voters. Shamley told them then that he had heard from constituents that were against the override, and that he would not vote for it.
“Mr. Shepherd stated the property tax only creates so much revenue and understands Mr. Shamley’s stance and leadership, and if it should pass we want to present a transparent, valid question for the voters and possibly bring something that benefits the county as a whole,” the minutes state.
Although Apache County routinely video-records the meetings of the Board of Supervisors and posts them online, no video from this meeting exists, according to staff in the office of the county manager.
Need for the tax, planned uses for the funding not well-documented
According to the minutes of the April 12 work session, there was no detailed discussion of why the funding for the tax override is needed.
Former Supervisor Doyel Shamley said that he felt that there was not enough discussion about the tax at the meeting in Ganado, and that there was no plan for spending the funds.
“It was rushed. All I asked for was more discussion … discussion that didn’t take place,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
In a telephone interview with Apache County Manager Ryan Patterson on Tuesday, Patterson said that the purpose of the tax override is to generate funds for capital improvement projects to the county’s buildings.
“Over the last recession, our biggest worry has been infrastructure, our buildings. We can maintain the people that we have, the services that we’re providing. However, we have a jail that’s 40 years old. The roof on all our buildings are leaking. Every rainfall we have damage in our buildings. Our elevator doesn’t work. There’s been a lot of infrastructure stuff that’s been ignored trying to get through the recession,” he said.
A section of the resolution for the property tax override that is supposed to show what the tax is to be used for simply includes a list of every department in the county, with no other details that indicate that the tax will be used for building maintenance or repairs.
In the county budget for fiscal year 2019, the line item on Schedule E for capital improvements such as roofs or other repairs is blank. The line item for capital improvements in the 2018 budget is also blank.
The reason for that, Patterson said, is that the county simply has not had enough funds to budget for capital improvements.
The county, Patterson said, is currently preparing documentation to show voters what the spending will be used for.
“There is a lot of preparation at this time. We don’t have exact numbers, but we have the basics of what we need,” he said.
County revenue and staffing reduced during recession
The Great Recession hit the county hard. The county experienced decreased revenues as property values fell and sales tax revenues declined at the same time that funding mandates from the state increased. Like many county governments, Apache County saw staffing reductions.
Apache County budgets were reduced as a result of the failure of the 2011 property tax override. “We had to cut $3.5 million out of our budget,” said Patterson, who served as the county’s finance director prior to accepting the positions as county manager. During the period 2011-2013, the county reduced their budget by about $1 million per year.
“During the recession, we lost a lot of people. We’re 30 officers short in the Sheriff’s Department. Each office has seen decreases to their staff … there were significant changes to they way we serve and operate inside the county,” Patterson said.
Coming out of the recession, Patterson said the county has only seen marginal improvements to income, while mandated costs are increasing. According to a document produced by Arizona County Supervisors Association, revenues of about $2.7 million from the current property tax levy in Apache County are just enough to pay for the county’s obligations to the Arizona Health Cost Containment System and the county’s retirement pension fund expenses. Like Navajo County, Apache County government is not primarily funded by property taxes, but by a combination of state and federal funding sources combined with property taxes.
While some of the economic burdens placed on the counties by the state during the recession are easing, reveues coming out of the recession remain lower. County sales tax revenues for 2016-17 were down 7.92 percent.
Getting the word out to voters about the needs of the county will be critical to the passage of the override, said Jennifer Steilow, vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, a public taxpayer watchdog group.
"It's definitely to their advantage to explain it to taxpayers," said Steilow of past failures of the override. "I would think they need to be very specific, to have a plan in place if they want it to pass," she added.