By Chase Kamp
Copper Area News
As FY 2013-14 county budget negotiations grow closer, Board Chairman Steve Miller and District 1 Supervisor Pete Rios have pledged to not raise property taxes and stifle additional spending in light of a $6.3 million loss in revenue from last year.
However, they say costs expected to pile up in the courts and law enforcement stemming from the county attorney’s office restructuring will pose a challenge to zeroing out the bottom line.
In a written statement, Miller outlined two hard objectives for the budget talks: no increase in the property tax rate and a freezing of department spending.
“Pinal County already has the highest primary property tax rate and the second highest tax burden of Arizona’s 15 counties,” he argued. “Our ultimate goal is to bring the tax levy to a reasonable level.”
In a response statement, Rios doubled down on these pledges. “No one should be surprised to find I am in complete agreement with Chairman Miller’s vision for the budget,” he wrote.
However, declining valuations from 2010 and 2011are still hurting tax income. The county will collect 7.7 percent less on property tax, a difference of $6.3 million.
“With the exception of slight upticks in state sales tax revenues,” Miller wrote, “the signs of recovery that we are beginning to see won’t be reflected in county property tax revenues for another 12 to 18 months.”
In January, the Board approved a reorganization proposed by County Attorney Lando Voyles which added a total of 30 new paralegal and administrative positions to the office at a cost of about $1 million this fiscal year.
Voyles told the Board the additional employees would allow for more trials and prosecutions of violent crime suspects.
Speaking with Copper Area News, both Rios and Miller said they were not interested in letting off violent criminals. However, as more cases are taken to trial, the two expect greater costs to manifest in the courts and in the Sheriff’s office down the line.
Miller said Maricopa County takes about 5 percent of its cases to trial and Pinal was running about 3 percent of cases during the previous administration. “I’m sure that was to keep costs down,” he said.
Rios said Voyles’ restructuring was similar to one made by former Maricopa County attorney Andrew Thomas when Rios served in the state legislature, and the cost with other entities affiliated with the criminal justice system also went up.
Among the added costs coming down the line will be more jail space and detention officers for the Sheriff’s office, Rios said, as well as busier courts and additional public defenders.
Rios said the county already spends about half of its general fund budget on public safety, and that if citizens want more funds sent toward that realm, it will mean shortfalls elsewhere. “Other programs and areas may need to be cut to address this particular concern,” he said.
Sheriff Paul Babeu indicated to the Board in January that his office will likely request more funding. The Supervisors said they have yet to hear proposals from other department heads.
Miller said lowering taxes was the most important goal he heard from voters during the election. “It’s not attractive to industry, and we’ve got one of the poorest in incomes in the state,” he said.
“For once, I would love to be average,” he said with a laugh.