“O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” – Sir Walter Scott
Recently, on the Mohave County Board of Supervisors busiest agenda in years, the supervisors voted to dramatically increase and add new fees in both the Building and Planning & Zoning Divisions in the Development Services Department. The timing was horrible.
The administration could have presented the proposed ordinances much sooner. In fact, the approved Building Fee Ordinance stated that the public hearing would be held on June 19. Instead, they waited until the contentious August budget meeting with its proposed $0.52 property tax increase. The county waited, but the board majority seemed in a mad dash to approve fee increases.
Even Supervisor Hildy Angius (Bullhead City) said she was led to believe they would postpone the decision. Who gave her that impression?
Staff made numerous claims to justify the increases such as not covering expenses and other counties and cities charge more. Sadly, these claims were inaccurate and/or ignored key facts. Looking at the budget history of the department brings to light glaring discrepancies.
They first stated that revenues were only 25-60 percent of operating expenditures. Not true for Building Inspection. In 2002 the Building Division achieved a $523,000 surplus on just $825,000 in revenue. In 2007 expenditures nearly quadrupled, but the division still saw the surplus exceed $500,000. At the height the recession, the division saw a 2012 deficit of over $440,000. Then in 2017, with a slight uptick in building, the $1.43 million of revenue exceeded their expenditures by $28,000. That’s without any fee increase. It appears Building Inspection is covering their expenditures.
By contrast, Planning & Zoning never comes close to covering their expenditures. This division is included in the general fund for that reason. Their responsibilities are mandated by statute. Most of expenditures are covered by general fund revenues including the primary property, sales and vehicle license taxes. Fees for services and permitting are much less than their expenditures. The same is true for the assessor, recorder and treasurer’s offices. Their services are mandatory and an intrinsic part of the county’s operations, unlike Planning & Zoning. In fact, ARS 11-811 states the supervisors “…MAY adopt a zoning ordinance” for the “general welfare” of the county [emphasis added]. How is doubling and tripling (or more!) of fees contributing to the county’s welfare?
The record confirms this. In 2002, permitting and service fees were $170K, but by 2007 they quadrupled to $670,000, while expenditures more than doubled over that time from $907,000 to $1.9 million. But neither year produced revenues sufficient to cover expenditures. In the last 10 years, their fees have been under $160,000, while expenditures stayed between $1.7-1.9 million. That’s why P&Z is in the general fund; their fees never came close to covering even 25 percent of their expenses, much less covering 60 percent.
Some important information left out when comparing Mohave to other counties and the cities is significant. The revenue streams for the cities are more limited than the county, primarily sales tax and some shared state revenues. Even then, their development services departments are general funds, not an enterprise fund, where the goal is to match services with sufficient fees. The building division is doing that without any fee increase.
When you look at Coconino and Yavapai counties, you’ll notice their fees are comparable to Mohave County’s previous rates. For example, Coconino charges $576 for residential rezones, while our fee quadrupled from $500 to $2,200. Yavapai’s are similarly structured.
Another glaring statistic ignored by the county is the huge demographic differences between unincorporated areas and the cities, as well as our neighboring counties. The average personal income in the three cities, Kingman, and the cities of Lake Havasu and Bullhead exceeds $23,000 annually. By contrast, the rest of the county is only $17,000 per person. The contrast to Coconino and Yavapai Counties have per capita incomes of $25,408 and $24,308, respectively. Rural Mohave County is much poorer – does the county want to keep it that way?
Perhaps these are some of the reasons Supervisor Angius placed reconsideration of both ordinances on the Oct. 2 agenda. Maybe she sees this rate increase would do the opposite of what it allegedly wants. Citizens should show their support at the meeting.
The county needs to present a more accurate picture. A fee increase may be in the future, but until the county is more accountable and transparent in their information, people should resist its tax and spend proposals.