Last year, the county’s budget was in dire straits according to County Administrator Mike Hendrix. Hendrix claimed that there was a revenue shortfall and the county needed to raise taxes or cut services. Supervisors Buster Johnson, Gary Watson, and Jean Bishop then voted for a $2.5 million property tax increase. After getting blowback, they lowered the Library and TV District rates in the final budget.
There were three problems with the vote. First, the state Legislature wrote flexibility language letting the county sweep $1.9 million from other funds, as they have in the past. Watson lobbied hard for that language and our county’s delegation of Kelli Ward, Sonny Borrelli and Gina Cobb delivered. Instead, the supervisors complained about state sweeps while refusing to sweep money themselves. They preferred raising taxes instead. They voted not to sweep again this year.
Second, the special district taxes are established independent of the general fund budget; just like city governments. If the districts didn’t need the money, why didn’t the Board lower rates originally?
Third, the county fails to acknowledge it has fully recovered from the downturn; revenues have returned to pre-recession levels, while cutting jobs. Johnson and Watson recently stated the county has 200-300 fewer employees than 2008. Yet salaries and benefits are the same as seven years ago. How do they explain that?
To compensate for lower revenue from sales taxes, vehicle license taxes and service charges, the county increased its primary property tax dramatically during the recession. Revenues grew from $29.8 million in 2008, to $37 million in 2012. With the new board, the rates and revenues stabilized as valuations bottomed out. This year’s primary property tax is expected to be about $33.5 million.
Yet sales and vehicle license taxes have rebounded solidly over the past five years. Sales tax revenue increased from its 2012 low of $17.4 million to $21.1 million, while vehicle license taxes has increased from its 2013 low of $5.4 million, to $7 million in 2016. The two funds exceed their 2008 levels by $700,000 and their recession lows by $5.3 million.
Throughout the recession however, the county has spent money like a drunken sailor (with apologies to drunken sailors!). They’ve built new buildings, raised some employees’ salaries, and created huge cash reserves. Johnson wants to blame new members of the Board for increased spending.
Johnson has claimed the county was deficit spending with the new members, Steven Moss and Hildy Angius leading the way. He said, “We spent 16 years running in the black, the last few years we’ve ran in the red … We have a board now that overspends the budget.”
That’s patently false. The county’s audited financial reports through 2015 show that general fund operating revenues have exceeded expenditures, not counting transfers, every year since 2012. Johnson plays the blame game, while failing to report the facts. In the last two years Johnson, along with Watson and the newest member Bishop, approved Hendrix’s budgets, including last year’s tax increase.
But to hear some Board members and candidates, we’re in “trouble” and need more revenues. Hendrix and others have consistently ignored increased revenues. Both Bishop and Moss’s opponent, Sue Donahue (Johnson’s former assistant) are calling for a sales tax increase.
It’s time for Johnson and Hendrix to come clean about county finances. There are issues to be sure, but blaming other supervisors while calling for new taxes isn’t the answer. Tell the truth about the budget … or there will be consequences from the voters.
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