Almost 20 new staff positions, new funding for law enforcement officer retention and employee raises of up to 5.5 percent are included in Coconino County’s tentative budget for the coming fiscal year.
The $182 million budget got initial approval by the board of supervisors last week.
Thanks to sales and property tax revenues that are projected to be about $3.8 million higher than the previous fiscal year, the new county budget puts more money toward justice reform and mental health, forest restoration and a new pay-for-performance pilot program.
A slightly better financial outlook for the Public Health Services District, more funding for emergency events like last month’s Tinder Fire and a fund to help employees purchase homes in the area are other components of the coming fiscal year’s budget.
In addition to a 3 percent base raise for all employees, county supervisors approved an additional one-time compensation increase based on pay grade. Employees at lower pay grades will see a 2.5 percent increase while those at higher pay grades will smaller percentage raises.
The idea was to give a bigger financial boost to moderate income earners who, in a high cost-of-living area like Flagstaff, often need that help the most, said Art Babbott, Coconino County supervisor.
Another $400,000 is being put toward a program where top-performing employees would get one-time raises while $75,000 will be used for workforce housing assistance.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office got a boost of more than $3.2 million in the coming fiscal year. About $700,000 in recurring funding will go toward supporting four new deputy positions in the Sheriff’s Office -- the largest increase in new positions of any county department. Sheriff Jim Driscoll made a compelling case to supervisors that in such a big county, multiple calls can stretch deputies so thin that sometimes it can take an hour or more for them to respond, said Mike Townsend, deputy county manager.
The other $2.5 million is one-time money that will go to start a law enforcement retention fund. Each detention or patrol officer who stays at the county for 10 years or more will be eligible for a $20,000 payout from that fund. Hiring and training new officers is a huge expense to the county, with the law enforcement training academy alone costing $90,000, so the incentive program should save money in the long run by reducing officer turnover, Townsend said.
JUSTICE REFORM AND MENTAL HEALTH
In response to a board of supervisors priority on justice reform and mental health, the budget allocates $500,000 in new dollars toward a behavioral health and substance abuse initiative, the multi-agency Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee and a program to help families where multiple generations have had significant contact with the justice system.
That spending aligns with an effort to take a more strategic approach to budgeting by figuring out how to address the root cause of something like a rise in caseloads rather than simply adding staff to deal with such an increase, Townsend said.
EMPLOYEE ADDS, CAPITAL FUNDING QUESTIONS
Other new positions in the budget include a criminal attorney in the county attorney’s office, a felony attorney in the public defender’s office and a new employee in the treasurer’s office to handle banking, investments and e-commerce support.
The approximately 20 new positions are on top of a current county staff count of 1,106.
Of the $3.8 million in additional revenue the county expects to see, $2.1 million will go toward employee pay raises, health premium and pension increases, said Megan Cunningham, assistant finance director.
A fund for capital projects is another big chunk of the budget -- $12 million this coming year. That money was originally going to be put toward the joint city-county courthouse project, but since the city backed out in April, the board of supervisors hasn’t prioritized other places for that money to go, Townsend said.
The transfer of money out of the general fund for those facilities-related capital projects, as well as a major financial software upgrade and programs like the sheriff’s office retention fund and the pay-for-performance pilot has drawn down the county’s unreserved general fund balance from $18.6 million in 2017 to an expected $573,000 in fiscal year 2019. There's an operating deficit of more than $7 million, which is made up out of reserve funds.
The county’s reasoning, Townsend said, is that reserve fund money shouldn’t just be sitting idle but should be put to use for the good of the community.
“We need to meet as many needs as we can,” he said.
Plus, the county still has a $10.5 million reserve fund meant for unexpected emergencies and “revenue smoothing” in the case of unexpected financial circumstances, Townsend said.
The financial picture has improved for the Public Health Services District, which last year was projected to go into the red this coming fiscal year. That’s because the state has agreed to take back responsibility for several costs that had been shifted to the counties in recent years, including the cost of operating state juvenile detention centers and a portion of the treatment costs for sexually violent persons, Townsend said. The county’s savings next year will amount to about $430,000, so it was decided to pass those savings along to the public health district, he said. Now, the district is expected to have a positive ending fund balance for at least this coming fiscal year and the next one.
Due to an increase in the total assessed property value county-wide, property owners will see a decrease in their county tax rate in the coming year even though the county will collect more property tax revenues in total. About $9.6 million, or 5 percent, of the county’s revenues will come from property taxes, and the total budget of $182 million is about 5 percent less than last year’s due to the completion of several major projects, such as the Fort Tuthill Quad restoration work, Cunningham said.
The budget will go before the board of directors for final approval June 26 at 6 p.m.