Groups irked over county’s disregard

Today's News-Herald
Wednesday, December 31, 2003
Brian Wedemeyer

Two citizen groups both claim they are having a tough time getting Mohave County to provide information about its finances.

Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, said his group has not received answers to written questions about the county’s budget and is now considering possible legal action. “We’re trying to decide what we’re going to do next,” McCarthy said. “We don’t intend to just walk away. If that means taking some form of legal action, I guess that’s what we’ll have to do.” McCarthy attended a budget meeting in Kingman in July to ask questions about the county’s revenues and expenditures for Fiscal Year 2003-04. Chairman Tom Sockwell said the meeting was not open to questions and answers and McCarthy was advised to submit his questions in writing.

In a letter to Sockwell dated Aug. 4, McCarthy expressed displeasure over his treatment at the meeting. “Not once, even in the most adversarial of circumstances, have I observed the arrogance displayed by Mohave County officials in the public adoption of the tentative budget,” McCarthy wrote. Sockwell fired back with a letter accusing McCarthy of representing big businesses in search of tax relief. “You are not a Mohave County taxpayer, so whose ‘watchdog’ are you?” Sockwell wrote.

On Tuesday, McCarthy accused Sockwell and County Manager Ron Walker of attempting to divert attention away from the issue.

“I usually try not to engage in that,” he said. “We represent a wide variety of interests, from the biggest businesses in Arizona down to individual members.”

Sockwell could not be reached Tuesday for comment. Walker, who has refused to communicate verbally with Today’s News-Herald for the past several months, did not respond to prepared questions sent to him by e-mail Tuesday. Today’s News-Herald also asked for the same information requested by the association.

Jim Holst, who has served as Yavapai County’s administrator for the past 21 years, said he and his staff meet annually with the tax research association for about an hour to review the proposed budget. He described the group as “respectable.” “Property tax levels appear to be the organization’s central concern,” Holst said. “I know there have been certain issues between the association and other counties, but I have never had a problem with them.”

Budget information gathered by the Arizona Tax Research Association was published in its most recent newsletter, which showed an increase of more than $150 million in county budgets statewide. Mohave County’s general fund budget increased by $1.6 million, or 3.1 percent, this fiscal year, according to the newsletter.

“One of the things we found out this year is that when you listen to the counties and how they characterize their financial situation, you get the impression they are in pretty dire fiscal straights,” McCarthy said. “But after looking at the budget revenues and spending increases, you don’t get that sense.”

The newsletter points out that Mohave County has not responded to the association’s written questions regarding the budget. Detailed information regarding the cost of salary increases, new full-time employees and other expenses “remains unclear at this time.”

“It becomes a serious problem for taxpayers when government entities just thumb their nose at the public and don’t tell you how they’re spending their money,” McCarthy said.

Meanwhile, Bill Ullery, founder of Manager Review, Inc., is attempting to gather information for a proposed succession from the county by Lake Havasu City. “They are totally stonewalling me,” Ullery said. “The word is out that the county manager has directed county employees not to deal with me or a member of our audit team verbally or otherwise.”

Ullery has hired a full-time auditor in hopes of determining how tax revenue is spent in Lake Havasu City compared to other parts of the county. In a letter to Ullery dated Nov. 25, County Finance Director John Timko advised that some of the information requested is not categorized by region. “As you are no doubt aware, the public information statutes require a public body to make available its public records,” Timko wrote. “If no records exist however, there is no requirement to create the record.” Ullery said he has documented the county’s responses to his requests and has recently hired an attorney. “At some point, I believe I’ll have enough to file a complaint with the state’s attorney general,” Ullery said. Supervisor Buster Johnson of Lake Havasu City claims he also is having trouble obtaining information from Walker’s staff. More recently, he claims Walker has ignored his requests for cost data on a new county administration building, estimated at $20 million.

Johnson said he also has received complaints from other local citizens trying to obtain “even the most mundane information.”

“This administration has been cloaked in secrecy, especially when it comes to finances,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate when you consider it was just a few years ago when Mr. Walker said the county was going bankrupt and was about to be taken over by the state. Then they found millions of dollars from out of nowhere and immediately spent it. “Taxpayers in Lake Havasu City should be concerned.”