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Guest opinion

Huckelberry: More to Pima County budget than just the total amount

The Pima County Board of Supervisors at the end of May took one of the interim steps required by state law to pass the annual county budget and set the expenditure limit for next fiscal year at $1.35 billion. That means that when they consider final budget adoption at the June 19 meeting, no matter what changes they may seek, the budget can't be any more than $1.35 billion.

That's a lot of money.

Because it's a lot of money, I often hearor read rhetorical comments that are similar to the "If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they….?" Such as, "If the county budget is $1.3 billion, why can't they pay for ….?"

The answer to questions like that are not easy because the budget is not easy, it's complicated.

The overall county budget is a compilation of funds, most of them restricted to funding one particular part of the county budget. Barely a quarter of the $1.3 billion can be considered truly discretionary, and even then, there are a lot of hands in the county wallet grabbing at that discretion.

Restricted funds comprise more than half of the budget and the restrictions are imposed by state and federal laws. The county has three taxing districts in addition to the main county property tax. Funds raised by the library, flood control and stadium district taxes can only be spent on the library, flood control and stadium district. Likewise, a secondary property tax to pay voter-approved bond debt can only be used for bond payments. The county also leverages  future income to pay for capital programs and economic development investments. Those loans must be repaid, so they are considered restricted.

Though it's funded by fees rather than taxes, the Wastewater department's budget also is restricted. The fees the department collects for sewer services throughout the County can only be used for wastewater purposes. Gas and the majority of vehicle license taxes we get from the state can only be used for transportation.

Fees and fines collected by the courts for the most part can only be used to partly fund the court system. Federal, state and private grants for a host of public services also can only be used for the specific purposes of the grants.

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There are numerous other smaller funds that carry one kind of restriction or another. There's also the budget reserve fund, which is how the county saves money by not spending it. This fund helps the county maintain its exceptionally high credit rating from the world's largest credit rating agencies. This allows us to borrow money at greatly reduced interest rates, saving taxpayers money over the long-term.

Once all those types of funds are accounted for, that leaves about half of the total budget for the general fund, which funds most county services. Technically, the general fund, about $640 million, is discretionary. But in reality, less than half of it is.

The state dictates most of the general fund's spending, including several unfunded mandates. The state mandates we spend nearly $90 million a year on state services, such as long-term health care and juvenile detention, yet provides no state funding to pay for it. Additionally, there is the legacy of the state's historic requirements for county government, which includes over a dozen elected offices, namely the Sheriff, Attorney, Treasurer, Assessor, Recorder, Court Clerk and School Superintendent. Plus, there's the elected Justices of the Peace and the Constables. All of those agencies and the services they provide are required by state law and primarily funded by the general fund.

The state also requires we monitor air and water quality, and that we do restaurant and pool inspections, provide zoning and development code enforcement, provide for animal control, have a medical examiner, have an emergency management department, operate a county jail, run the Superior and Justice courts, provide indigent legal defense services, provide public fiduciary services, and conduct elections for county, federal and state offices.

All of those services are funded through the general fund.

Then there is the spending necessary for effective government operations such as Human Resources, IT, Facilities Management, finance and procurement and maintaining the County's fleet of vehicles. Those, too, are funded by the general fund.

What's left that's truly discretionary? Not much. Out of the remainder we fund parks, pools, community services, and an assortment of other programs and services.

Many people might argue that parks and pools aren't discretionary, they're essential services. I agree. That's another reason the county's budget is complicated; we need to balance community needs and desires with the funds available. Different constituencies have different funding priorities. One person's underspending for a government program is another person's overspending for the same thing.

My job as county administrator is to give the Board a fiscally responsible budget that balances the needs of the community with the desire of the taxpayer to have the best possible government at an affordable cost.

Ultimately, what gets funded and for how much is up to the board. And as you can see, there's a lot more to it than just voting on the total.

The county puts the entire budget and all the support documents and research used to create it online. To dig deep into the county budget, click here.

Chuck Huckelberry is the administrator of Pima County.

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