ATRA meets with supervisors

Parker Pioneer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Joan M. Travis

Jennifer Schuldt of the Arizona Tax Research Association, asked a variety of questions about La Paz County's finances at the annual interview with the Board of Supervisors.

ATRA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization which analyzes each Arizona county's financial picture and tax rate.

Schuldt, who serves as vice president of ATRA has come to La Paz several times prior; and informed the supervisors La Paz County was her final county stop, at the Aug. 1 meeting.

Schuldt's first query was about employee costs, such as cost of living allowances and merit increases.

County Finance Director Ava Alcaida told her the total cost could be estimated, but no firm number was in place because of the current situation.

District 1 Supervisor Gene Fisher told Schuldt that the COLA is still under discussion and it is between 1 3/4 to 2 percent. And the county is looking specifically at law enforcement increases -- dispatch, detention and deputies. This does not include clerical employees, nurses or cooks.

It was noted the county's salaries for law enforcement positions are still low compared to some counties.

Beginning salary for detention officers would be $29,000 and dispatchers would be at $26,500. Beginning salaries for certified deputies would be at $39,000.

Supervisor Mary Scott said it takes about $50,000 to train an officer, and officers often leave for better pay.

Schuldt told the board the issue is happening statewide. It's an issue with all counties, she said.

Board Chairman Cliff Edey said, "We don't want to be the highest paying county. That only continues the spiral upward."

By adopting the $39,000 base pay for deputies, nine counties will be have higher salaries; and five counties will have lower salaries, Fisher added.

Schuldt asked where they received the information about statewide salary numbers and was told the Sheriff's Office supplied the information, which was accurate.

Regarding the law enforcement increases, Edey said, "We do our homework. We have the money, but what happens next year and the following year? We just don't want to paint ourselves into a corner."

Next, Schuldt asked about step increases and COLA numbers. How do the supervisors determine them.

Step increases happen on the employee's anniversary date of hire. The increases are 2.3 to 2.8 percent. The percentage is determined by how long the employee has been with the county.

Department heads' and chief deputies' increases are at the discretion of the board of supervisors, starting at 2.5 percent. Last year's increase was 2.5 percent; and this year's increase will be 2.6 percent.

Other information about the county employee work force included a turnover rate of 18.3 percent. The county covers an employee's health care 100 percent; and pays for 50 percent for dependents.

The county had a increase in premium costs of approximately 7 percent. The cost to cover an employee is $24.49; and the premium for dependents is $32.92.

Schuldt asked about county capital expenditure projects. Fisher said the county Public Works facility was nearly completed. Fencing was going up and curbing and chipseal were being completed. The project cost $2.6 million and was paid in cash.

Fisher said the project was held up by 148 days because the Town of Parker didn't have their water lines in place. Due to that delay, there will be an increase in cost by a few thousand dollars.

Schuldt asked about why the county needed to build a public works facility. Supervisors Fisher and Edey explained maintenance operations were in a building owned by Arizona Western College. At one point in time AWC wanted to sell the building to La Paz County.

The county hired an appraiser and gave AWC a price.

"We had a verbal agreement on the price and then they changed their minds," recalled Edey.

Other county projects include construction of the Salome community center. Another project is the Brenda Helipad.

Supervisor Scott said the helipad was a much needed service for the remote community and surrounding residents. She said private contributions were at $20,000. The county's contribution will be $4,300.

Another project was moving the modular building which used to house the county child support department, to Salome and be used as Justice of the Peace Court offices.

Schuldt asked if the county had development impact fees. The supervisors said no, but they recently had an analysis done on proposed fees. They estimate it will take six to 12 months to get the fees in place.

Regarding the county Jail District, Schuldt asked if there was a juvenile detention facility. The supervisors said Yuma County houses the juveniles.

Discussion of the jail expansion included the upgrading of 911 equipment, which the county received a grant to do. Also, the addition to the detention center will have a pod for women.

Each pod in the jail has 40 beds. As it stands now, one pod would is used to house women, with only 12 to 16 beds being used. The detention center's rent-a-bed policy would be utilized better.

The county has the lowest inmate bed cost of $44 per day. The number of beds available are 228 to 230. They average a 89 percent occupancy rate. The average number of county residents in the jail was at any time is 76.

Renting the beds are the Department of Corrections, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Marshal's Office, Yuma and San Diego Counties; U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Immigration & Naturalization Service; and prisoner transport services.

Schuldt asked if the jail had heavy medical costs, noting some counties are finding their costs soaring.

Edey said there was one inmate with possible TB infection, which was resolved. There was also an inmate with bad teeth and another with a heart condition.

Fisher said the jail was built in 1994 and has had excellent maintenance and good management.

Schuldt asked what was the average value increase on existing commercial and residential property. The supervisors told her 13.5 percent overall.

She informed the supervisors there two propositions have been filed with the Secretary of State's office and 230,000 signatures will have to be obtained for each. She said they are valuation initiatives and ATRA is not in support of either.