Governments start planning next year's budgets this month. Planning is good; they can't come back later saying "We need more money!"
This past year's local budget and spending battles, plus news about city issues makes people irritated with any tax discussions. However, it's no fairer to reject tax proposals based on one person's actions, than it is to have your driving privilege revoked because your son got a DUI. The plan to offset sales tax with property tax should stand on its own merit.
But the county's budget causes me concern. Increasing property taxes last year was questionable, considering the county's cash reserves and revenues that have rebounded to pre-recession levels. The last-second proposal to reduce Library and TV District taxes in order to justify that $2.5 million property tax increase left a bad taste in our mouths. We need to pay closer attention and hold their feet to the fire.
Three issues should be at the top of our minds during the county's upcoming budget process.
1. Cash Reserves. Last year, $30 million to $40 million in cash reserves caused two Supervisors to oppose a tax increase. But the majority voted to leave them untouched, saving them for a "rainy day." Yet in 2012, the county took $3.5 million and $1.5 million from the Road and Landfill funds to pay for the new Public Works building. The county will raid the reserves for pet projects, but not to avoid a tax increase?
Then Administrator Mike Hendrix said he preferred 100 percent cash reserves, contradicting his finance director's recommendation of 25 percent. Why does he want four times as much; how much is "enough"?
2. Truth in Budgeting. Supervisor Johnson said last summer the county employee count was down 200 from its high of 1,400. Well then, how can wages and benefits be virtually unchanged from 2008 to 2015 with 200 less employees? Besides a paltry 2.5% wage increase in 2013, the average employee hasn't seen any improvement, so where did the money go?
Furthermore, the county has complained loud and long about shrinking revenues. Sure, state shared sales taxes hit its low, $17.4 million, in 2011, but have rebounded to a projected $21.2 million for 2016. Yet, you didn't hear one word about the $4 million increase.
Second, the complaints of lower property taxes are rather curious. In 2008, General Fund property taxes were $29.8 million versus $34 million in 2014, the latest available audit. It's only slightly less for 2015, so it begs the question: Why doesn't the county present a more transparent picture?
3. Stop the Blame Game. Last year our state representatives, Sonny Borrelli and Gina Cobb, were surprised by the county's complaints over state shifts. They shouldn't have been - it's been a familiar tune in past years. But Cobb and Borrelli were new and hadn't heard it before.
Our representatives negotiated "flexibility language," allowing the county to pull $1 million out of restricted funds, as well as reductions in some sweeps. Yet the majority on the board, supervisors Johnson, Watson and Bishop, voted to leave money in those accounts, voting instead to raise taxes. Why ask if you didn't use the option?
Another complaint by the county was reduction of HURF (road) funds, about $1 million a year. But that hit was lowered to about $600,000 for the last 2-3 years. Yet, the fund, which stood at $7 million on July 1, 2008, is now a VERY robust $16 million. If the county refuses to use money for its intended, and very much needed, purpose, what right do they have to complain?
The county has definitely experienced budget upheaval over the past eight years. However, the 2014 General Fund revenues were only $1 million less than 2007, just a 1.3 percent drop. Just because it has not experienced the double-digit growth of the past doesn't mean they're hurting.
Rather, they simply haven't learned to live within the taxpayers' means.
Most of us would be thrilled with only a 1% drop in our income. Mohave is a vast county with lots of resources, but the people feel theirs have been tapped out. The county needs to tighten its belt for a change.
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