by Toni Denis
The opening of three seats where incumbents are either retiring or have left has motivated candidates to jump into the breach and vie for one of the most influential and best-paying elected offices in the region.
Those retiring are Tom Thurman of District 2, who has been in the role since 2005, and Rowle Simmons, District 1 since 2013. Jack Smith of District 5 left in July 2019 after seven years in office to take over as state director of USDA Rural Development. The appointee who replaced him is now running for election.
Yavapai County Elections Director Lynn Constabile says that when District 4 had an incumbent retire a couple of election cycles ago, eight people ran for the seat, so the rush not unprecedented. However, because three seats are open, “we’ve had a lot of people throw their hats in the ring.”
Three issues are also motivating factors: the controversial decision to build a new jail, a staggering 18% tax increase in 2019, and the approval of a watered-down Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolution that pleased neither side. Add to that the ongoing retirement-fund deficit, and the current county board appears to be out of sync with its citizens.
In normal times, county government isn’t a sexy subject. Unless the Supervisors are debating a hot-button issue, like whether to declare the county a symbolic gun sanctuary, most of what they do is vote on budget items like repairing roads and bridges or paying worker salaries. Yavapai County is among the largest employers in the county.
The main reason residents should care about county government is taxes. The county levies and collects more taxes than any other local government group. Far more.
The property-tax levy alone for 2019 is $55.7 million. The general county budget is nearly $173 million, which includes income from HURF (Highway User Revenue Funds, through ADOT), regional road funds, primary-care fees, library-district taxes, capital expenses, etc. It’s an enormous pie with multiple streams of outside income and multiple levies of taxes.
Decision-makers in county government include career employees like County Administrator Phil Bourdon, who puts together the budget with Assistant County Administrator and attorney Jack Fields. They offer options and opinions to the board. All elected county officials are Republicans, as are the vast majority of employees.
All five elected Supervisor seats are up for reelection this year. While incumbents have less competition — Republicans are loathe to run against an incumbent — the open seats have plenty, due in part to the decision last December to build a new jail. Three Democrats are running this year — the first time in 35 years that Democrats have run for the county board — demonstrating the widespread anger over how the current board has operated.
Despite two referendum votes turning down the construction of a new county jail, in December the Supervisors voted to issue a bond (borrow money) to build it in Prescott, off Prescott Lakes Parkway on a site already set aside for it. The project is going forward even though two years ago we were publicly told, in a pamphlet on restoring the sales tax for jail maintenance, that the jail would not be built without it.
While some taxpayers expressed their outrage in letters to the editor of the local paper, most people hardly noticed when the board voted to go forward with the whopping $70 million jail bond. About $4 million a year is budgeted from the 2019 property-tax increase to pay down the bond. The rest will be used to offset the retirement-fund deficit.
A study conducted by Chinn Planning and DLR Group from 2016 and published in 2017 outlines the anticipated growth in numbers of incarcerated individuals. These trends are based on population growth and data involving “pretrial” cases. Many of these cases are dismissed or people are released on their own recognizance, some are put on probation, and often those who have substance-abuse problems are treated while in jail and released, though outsourcing this to rehab centers has never been considered. The real need for beds is debatable and the numbers are easy to manipulate, making it difficult to discern whether a new jail is truly required. Much of what the report said was not used to justify the new jail, in any case.
The County Sheriff and deputies want the new jail because of the onerous burden of transporting people to Camp Verde for incarceration, since the vast majority come from the Quad Cities side of Mingus Mountain. The Camp Verde jail was built quickly in response to a federal court order due to unsafe and overcrowded conditions at the outdated Prescott jail, now the county law-enforcement center, on Gurley Street. The county couldn’t find a suitable location in Prescott that didn’t immediately garner opposition, so it designated land that was already county-owned, far from residential areas.
The jail issue is a major one, but represents only one of many issues that candidates see as fodder for their elections. The tax increase hits residents in their wallets.
The county’s property-tax levy increased 18% in 2019. While the state limits tax increases to only 2% over the previous year per year, the county had “banked” its increases by not raising taxes for nine years, making it legal to do so. Renters will be impacted, too, because the tax increase will pass through to them. Sales-tax increases, too, are regressive and hurt lower-income people the most. In a year when unemployment has struck worldwide, this bodes ill for hard-hit residents.
For the new jail alone, Yavapai County homeowners are paying $30 more for each $100,000 in assessed limited value on their properties for 2019.
The county could have been collecting far more revenue from ranchers and corporations operating in the county over many years, but has chosen not to, and even actively worked against doing so in favor of putting the burden on residents.
When former county assessor Pam Pearsall pointed out that the Board of Supervisors was under-taxing ranchers and corporations, she was excoriated and smeared by Supervisors who backed a competitor in the next election, Judd Simmons. After Simmons won, $2 million in business-property taxes that weren’t collected were suddenly and illegally taken off of the books, alleges Pearsall, without placing liens on businesses or seizing property, as prescribed by law.
“Since then the county continues to refuse to follow the law on these collections, and again they have accumulated, and are now probably more than $2 million,” Pearsall said. “Why would they do this? I can only speculate that they are telling their friends not to bother paying their taxes and promising not to go after them, and later they just clear the taxes from the tax rolls.” This shifts the tax burden to the rest of us.
While the resolution is largely symbolic, because the county won’t use any resources to enforce it, the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement is meant to prevent a “red-flag law” that would allow police or family members to petition a court to confiscate the weapons of people who present danger to themselves or others. The pro-gun people wanted “teeth” in the resolution, but were disappointed. The pro-gun-control people were against it because they back regulations to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people. They also felt that the Second Amendment already protects the rights of people to own guns.
Even those who ardently favored the proposition said it had no weight of law to prevent state or federal laws from superseding it, since the county won’t authorize any “funds, resources, employees, agencies, contractors, buildings, detention centers or officers for the purpose of enforcing laws that unconstitutionally infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms.”
It’s likely candidates will take stands on that issue, too.
The county’s Public Safety Personnel Retirement System fund has a $50 million deficit due to poor management of the state fund’s stock portfolio, but the county has to make up the difference. The fund is used for retirement of officers from the Sheriff’s Department, dispatchers, corrections officers, and a legacy retirement fund for two retired county attorney investigators. The county is paying $5.1 million this year, with a plan to replenish the fund in 18 years, which is only about 50% covered at this point.
While the county is aggressively paying it down to lower the deficit in time to meet obligations, the state has done nothing to remove pension-fund board members or make up the difference, while counties are taxing food and essentials to plug the giant budget hole. Groups like the Citizens Tax Committee have protested the lack of action by local officials in meetings and via letters. They have also suggested taking other less-palatable actions to deal with the problem, like cutting retirement benefits, rather than load more taxes onto county residents.
Another issue to watch is water. It will impact residents in the near future as the county population explodes with the construction of more than 10,000 homes in Prescott Valley and pending plans for several thousand more in Prescott. The Citizens Water Advocacy Group has a forum and raises the issue of water usage every election.
While water is a key issue the cities are fighting over, the county also has an impact on its usage, since it imposes no restrictions and does no metering. Ranches can use as much as they desire, possibly to the detriment of homeowners and businesses that tap into the same aquifers.
The county government has a reputation for doing the bidding of large landowners, big corporate interests and friends of elected Supervisors. As resources and land grow scarce, it’s worth checking out the candidates for office and where they stand on water and growth issues, watching where the tax dollars are spent, and following the money.
Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses.