Who are we to begrudge public agency employees in high-priced Flagstaff their raises?
Not us, even as we offer up some caution.
The immediate concern is the dependence of local city and county spending growth on sales taxes – especially from tourism and recreation. We’re not saying the bubble is about to burst, but double-digit increases can’t continue indefinitely.
Longer term, the imbalance between the haves (municipalities) and have-nots (school districts) in tax-funded public programs is growing, and with no end in sight. There may come a time of reckoning when gasoline prices rebound to $4 a gallon and the Grand Canyon’s 100th birthday is history. But for now, we see those agencies with sales tax revenue as pulling far ahead of those dependent on state-shared income taxes and locally capped property taxes.
Let’s do a thought experiment that puts every public program, from schools to sewers and streetlights, into one big pot and asks taxpayers to rate them in priority and how much more they believe should be spent for each. We have a feeling that public schools would come out on top, yet they are among this state’s most poorly funded programs, and the results show it: poor test scores, high dropout rates and high turnover among young teachers. As leaders in other states with more successful school systems have noted, you can’t keep cutting taxes and expect to have first-rate public schools.
Likewise, in higher education, the Legislature has cut state appropriations even as enrollment has soared, resulting in a 30 percent decrease in spending per student since before the recession at NAU. At CCC, which is also cut off from the local sales tax and saddled with an artificially low property tax, most businesses would rate the need for their training programs highly, but the college is cut off from a funding source more responsive to the growing economy.
On the other end, individual services within municipalities and counties like police and fire might rate highly with citizens, but the overall growth of their budgets isn’t limited to those areas. The extra funds coming in from consumption taxes are expanding leadership positions such as a new “Special Initiatives” director at the county and a community liaison at the city (partly funded by NAU). It’s doubtful those would rate as highly in our thought experiment as significant pay raises for teachers. Ironically, when the logjam in the hiring of Flagstaff police and firefighters was finally broken, it came out of property taxes, leaving the surging sales tax largesse intact.
The imbalance between appropriating public money to where it is politically convenient vs. where it is most needed is not limited at the state level to just schools. This region generates many more millions of dollars in gasoline taxes than it receives back for tasks such as filling potholes on I-40 and I-17. Instead, that money goes to keeping more Department of Public Safety officers on the freeways in the Valley.
Out at remote Kendrick Mountain, there’s another example of misplaced public spending priorities. The bill for burning over an already burned-over mountain will come to millions of dollars. Meanwhile several million acres of overgrown, unhealthy forests in northern Arizona go begging for restoration funds. Again, ask the public to choose between the two, and it’s a no-brainer.
But the public isn’t being asked and the system of paying for government programs out of self-contained funding silos isn't likely to change soon. So we can only advise saving more of those sales tax revenues for a rainy day, campaigning for a dedicated statewide schools tax and forming partnerships between the haves and haves-nots that share and redirect resources – city grants to school programs are one example.
Flagstaff got along with 90 fewer positions for several years after the recession hit hard in 2008. Maybe it’s time to ask whether all those jobs can be restored sustainably on such a shifting base as tourism and how some of that windfall might be used where citizens actually want it to go.