Walker: County can avoid crisis

Supervisors must stick to budget plan to get through lean times, manager says

KINGMAN - While Mohave County may be facing a tough economic future, County Manager Ron Walker offered a forecast that included no layoffs and a continued hiring freeze.

"We can weather this economic downturn, but we must not waiver from our strong fiscal controls," Walker said.

On Monday, 20 elected officials and department heads presented individual performances and accomplishments during a special workshop meeting before Board Chairman Pete Byers and Board Vice Chairman Tom Sockwell.

Supervisor Buster Johnson left after the regular meeting, and that didn't sit well with Sockwell.

"I wish the whole board would have enough respect to sit here and listen," Sockwell said.

"We face some tough fiscal decisions now and how we behave will set the course for success or failure," Walker said. "We can plan to succeed or plan to fail."

Each presenter expressed a desire to meet the fiscal limitations by the county, while maintaining efficient performance.

"The state cut the money and there isn't anything we can do about it," Byers said.

Finance Director John Timko presented a grim picture for the county in terms of the projected budget. The county will receive millions less than expected: approximately $1.6 million below estimated in state shared sales tax, $335,000 below budget from vehicle license taxes and $3.4 million less from fines, fees and miscellaneous sources of revenue.

"On a positive note, I am pleased to say that I believe we can prevent a fiscal crisis," Walker said.

Dating back to the beginning of the century, the Board of Supervisors adopted a strict policy for financial stability, never budgeting to spend more for county operations and maintenance than was projected in revenues.

"What we do now and for next year will decide the legacy of this Board," Walker said.

The Board has underspent to allow contributions to contingency reserves, which Walker said should not to be tapped for operational expenses.

"To get through this fiscal downturn we must not falter now," Walker said. "We must not abandon our values and business objectives."

Timko estimated the county could save $3.1 million by keeping the 52 positions vacant in the county. The county was able to maintain a balanced budget this year through the hiring freeze, Timko said.

One exception to the freeze was the Public Defender's Office. They were approved to add positions and expect to be fully staffed by November, Public Defender Dana Hlavac said.

Focus on law and order was reinforced at the meeting when Walker specifically addressed the sheriff, jail, attorney, courts and indigent defense services.

"A major concern for me is the growth in demand and costs for the criminal justice system," Walker said.

According to Sheriff Tom Sheahan, the MCSO will have all vacant positions filled after deputies are assigned to the police academies in May.

The County Attorney's Office lost two prosecutors, which also could be filled. Byers said they could look into obtaining attorneys, though he didn't make any guarantees about filling them.

Even with the concern, the possible additions weren't on the mind of Walker.

"I also think that the freeze should be extended to the criminal justice system next year, and I ask your consideration," Walker said to the Board.

Fully-staffed, the Legal Defender's Office hasn't faced the same limitations as the County Attorney and Public Defender's offices. In fact, they have been able to spend under the budget - falling approximately $141,000 below last year.

The Recorder and other departments including Procurement expect to maintain current staff and not to request additional funding.

The Finance Department plans to absorb an expected vacancy to help achieve financial stability, Timko said. Several other departments, including Human Resources and Information Technology, will do the same.

Sometimes continuing services required the county to think outside the box. The Community and Economic Development Department will be further tapping into outside partners, including The Home Depot for projects.

Eliminating staff may be a possibility for the county.

"In the event of worst case, I have had my direct report departments prepare a downsizing plan, which I hope we do not have to implement," Walker said. "No one will like its outcome. If we are vigilant in strict fiscal controls, I do not think it will be necessary."

The Health Department has already reduced staff by one full-time position and one part-time position. The Probation Department may have to join them if they lose funding from grants.

"In my mind failure is not an option, and I pledge to do whatever is necessary to ensure our long-term success," Walker said.