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11:22 PM Sun, Dec. 09th

Several factors contributed to brighter picture for county finances, officials say

Mohave County government is in better shape this new fiscal year for five reasons, Finance Director John Timko said.

Timko and others have said improved finances made it possible for county officials to justify raises averaging 11 percent based on a market survey of 33 other jurisdictions.

"It is money that is there because several things have happened," he said.

Timko listed the five factors:

• The county received more revenue for its general fund than staff had planned: nearly $48.9 million, up $540,172 from what staff had budgeted for fiscal 2001-2002, which ended Sunday.

The general fund, which pays for general county operations, gets revenue from property and state-shared sales taxes, fees and fines and other sources.

• A number of positions, not just those paid from the general fund, are vacant.

The finance staff projected personnel costs just for general fund positions will exceed $22.7 million for 2001-2002, which is $2.5 million less than was budgeted.

The county, including the courts, has about 1,056 positions and is recruiting for about 100 jobs, human resources supervisor Beth Cordes said.

• "We intentionally tried to hold back on spending all year," Timko said.

• "We did not have our typical year-end spending spree where (department heads) spend in May or June what is left in their budget," Timko said.

• Finance staff hedged during the start of the fiscal year against costs that did not materialize, he said.

"We're better off than we were last year," County Manager Ron Walker said.

"We were looking at how we could stop the precipitous (fiscal) decline.

"What a difference a year makes.

We needed to reduce our overall costs and enhance our revenue status.

We beat all our projections.

We held the line on costs."

The county will carry over about $5 million from the general fund to the 2002-2003 budget, up more than $3.7 million from the carryover a year ago, according to a budget report prepared by Timko's staff.

He said the carryover fund had been decreasing during the previous six years.

The financial staff has proposed a general fund budget of about $52.4 million for 2002-2003, up nearly $4 million from what was budgeted for 2001-2002.

Timko said the overall budget is expected to be about $170 million and will include other funding sources such as state and federal funds and special district taxes.

Timko, who started in the job in January, said that he learned the county was in better fiscal shape than presumed when he conducted a "cursory" analysis in February.

He said no one else knew at the time because of the departure of his predecessor, Duc Ma, and several accountants.

For that matter, he disputed public perception, as well as press accounts, that county officials had "suddenly found" money before he and Walker spoke at a budget workshop June 11.

The county was $4.2 million ahead in the general fund in December, Timko said.

In March, the figure was $4.3 million.

Still, Timko said the state's financial crisis cast a cloud over the county's rosy picture as the 2001-2002 fiscal year wound down.

As state legislators attempted to balance their budget, the county faced a potential burden of as much as $2 million on the general fund.

With that in mind, county supervisors Pete Byers of Kingman and Tom Sockwell of Bullhead City lobbied the lawmakers to pass a bill that would enable three-member boards to raise sales taxes by a two-thirds' vote.

The bill fizzled.

Supervisor Buster Johnson of Lake Havasu City has blocked efforts to raise sales taxes, saying he wanted to see a plan first.

Sockwell later withdrew his support for higher sales taxes in response to opposition from constituents.

However, the state budget battle cost the county only $450,000, and most of it went to the return-to-competency program, Timko said.

Under the program, counties pay costs of sending defendants to the Arizona State Hospital for tests that determine whether they will be deemed competent to stand trial.

"Now I know that I dodged all the bullets," he said.

The county also received the second-half of the property taxes for the 2001 calendar tax year during the spring, and those figures are up, according to Dave Chevalier, chief deputy treasurer.

Property taxes, at $1.75 per $100 in assessed valuation for the primary rate, are due Oct.

1 and March 1.

As of May 31, the treasurer's office collected $15.9 million, up $700,000 from a year earlier, Chevalier said.

"It's fairly significant," he said.

Those figures do not include delinquent property taxes, Chevalier said.

The delinquency rate is less than 2 percent, Treasurer Dora Goodmiller said.

Assessor Bev Payne said property taxes revenue increased because of new construction and an increase in property values in some areas.

About 240,000 parcels are on the tax rolls.

Overall, general fund revenue was $540,172 higher than budgeted, according to the budget workshop report.

Projected year-end (June 30) revenue included $19 million from property and state-shared sales taxes, $3.9 million in charges for services, $2.6 million from a transfer from the quarter-cent sales tax for buildings, the $1.2 million carryover and more than $1 million in fines.

Byers and Sockwell voted for the $2.6 million sales tax transfer last August to maintain funding in general fund departments for 2001-2002 when they approved a $150 million overall budget.

Timko said no such transfer is proposed for the current fiscal year.

Nor are higher sales or property taxes.

Projected revenue for the new fiscal year includes $18.3 million from property taxes, up more than $1 million from what was budgeted for 2001-2002; about $13.5 million from state-shared sales taxes, down $474; about $4.6 million from auto in-lieu taxes, up $487,793; and $1.5 million in federal in-lieu of taxes funds, up $454,338.

Timko said the general fund would have been in even better shape had voters on May 21 approved a seven-year secondary property tax, known as an override, for the Mohave County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Tom Sheahan proposed the override to raise nearly $18 million to cover pay raises for deputies, replace aging vehicles and buy equipment.

Sheahan has said the tax would have freed up money for other departments.

"If the sheriff's override had passed, the general fund's position would have been better," Timko said.

"The reason it would have been better (is) the sheriff and the jail account for about 25 percent of the general fund."

The current fiscal situation for the county is much better than what Walker presented to the supervisors a year ago as staff was preparing the 2001-2002 budget.

He cited numerous factors for the county's situation in a report dated July 9, 2001.

Among them were:

• Revenue growth had not kept up with the increase in population and costs.

• Property tax revenue grew 3.5 percent a year since 1995-96 while expenses increased more than 8 percent a year.

• Legally mandated but unfunded services and costs of other services kept rising independently of the ability of the general fund to pay.

Walker last year recommended increasing general fund revenue with a quarter-cent sales tax and by increasing the primary property tax rate by 21.94 cents on $100 in assessed valuation, but the supervisors did not go along with his recommendations.

Reflecting on the current budget situation, Byers said, "It looks like we won't have to (raise taxes) for the next two years."

However, he said he would favor increasing the sales tax by a quarter percent – generating $3.5 million to $3.9 million a year - while cutting property taxes by 20 cents per $100 in assessed valuation.

"We'll be saving about $2 million and we'll take a look at next year," Byers said.

"It will create a cash influx.

It will solve a lot of problems."