After a record-setting nine-hour meeting that included comments from nearly 50 citizens and four proposals that failed, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 Monday evening to pass the final budget for next year with no increase in the property tax rate and no additional money for the sheriff’s department.
It was a huge disappointment for Sheriff Doug Schuster and about 20 deputies who lined the back two rows of the nearly packed auditorium at the County Administration Building.
“I’m disappointed for my staff, and I’m even more disappointed for the citizens of Mohave County,” Schuster said after the vote. “We’re spending millions of dollars when we’re down 20 to 30 positions. It’s just a repetitive cycle we’ll continue to try to break.”
In the end it was Chairman Gary Watson’s motion that won the vote, with Supervisor Hildy Angius opposed because she was insistent on funding the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office for an additional $1.6 million to address wage “compression” issues.
The final budget presented by Finance Director Coral Loyd totaled $281.9 million, with $89.8 million going to the general fund.
Watson came up with a plan to take money from a number of contingency funds, or reserves, to cover the $2.8 million budget deficit.
He took $612,000 from the employee benefit trust, $600,000 from the flood district, $600,000 from the library district, $100,000 from janitorial services, $100,000 from street maintenance, $200,000 from environmental health and $540,000 from the motor pool replacement fund. “There’s no increase in property tax. I’m afraid it doesn’t solve the sheriff’s problem, not the courthouse (renovation), but it pays for the current liability on two pensions,” Watson said.
The county is on the hook for about $39 million in payments for the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and Elected Officials Retirement Plan and is looking at renovating the downtown courthouse at a cost of at least $20 million.
Supervisor Jean Bishop was pushing for an increase in the property tax rate, initially wanting to take it from $1.96 to every $100 of assessed value to $2.48.
When she found no support for the increase, she proposed a 10-cent increase, with 9 cents going to Mohave County Sheriff’s Office and 1 cent to probation.
She also proposed taking money from the other funds to cover the deficit, but the vote was 2-2 with Angius and Buster Johnson opposed.
Johnson proposed a 3 percent cut across the board for all departments, and his motion failed for lack of a second.
Watson pointed out to the audience that $44 million collected in property tax each year is not enough to support the sheriff’s office and courthouse renovation.
Forty-six citizens had signed up for public comment on the budget, though many had left by the afternoon. Still, every speaker was opposed to the property tax increase.
“At some point in time, if you want a larger sheriff’s department, if you want a more reactive court, you’re going to have to address the property tax or enacting a quarter-cent sales tax,” Watson said. “We’re $12 (million) to $14 million short in funding the sheriff’s and courts and that is abominable.”
If the property tax had been increased 2 percent a year for the last eight years, the county could achieve everything it wanted, he added.
Schuster told the board he was slotted for 31 patrol cars for 2018-19, but he’d be more than willing to give up 11 vehicles to make up for compression, or the difference in pay between rookie officers and those with several years of experience.
“My biggest fear is we won’t have deputies to drive them,” the sheriff said. “These guys at this point will ride donkeys to work if they can get their pay up. So it’s nice to have the cars. We started with a bunch of junkers. We made it work. If I have to make a choice between vehicles and personnel, I’m choosing personnel every day of the week.
“I can promise you this, if we don’t fix this compression problem, internally we’re going to spend more money hiring deputies, and the product we’re going to produce is that they’re all going to be rookie officers for years to come. You want to keep your tenure, you want to keep your experienced officers, but you’ve got to pay for them,” Schuster said.
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