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Arizona Edition: Yuma County’s Budget 50 Percent Higher Than Previous Year

The tentative budget for Yuma County next year is more than 50 percent higher than last year's. What does it include? And where did the money come from? On this episode of Arizona Edition Yuma County Administrator Susan Thorpe speaks with KAWC’s Lou Gum on this year's budget.  

This story aired June 11, 2021 on KAWC’s Arizona Edition.  



HOST (Lou Gum):  

The tentative budget for Yuma County next year is over 50% higher than last year's. What does it include? And where did the money come from? I'm Lou gum.  

This is Arizona edition on KAWC. We're taking a deep dive into the Yuma County budget today with Yuma County administrator Susan Thorpe.  

Thorpe says there are reasons next year's proposed budget is higher than last year's, and it isn't just an influx of federal funds through legislation like the American rescue plan.  

She says part of it is a conservative approach to spending on the part of the county board. Before we dive too deeply into what's going on right now with the county budget.  

I wonder if we could do a sort of primmer explaining the county's budget, where do funds come from normally, and of course, I'm talking sort of pre-COVID. 


ST: So the general fund is the fund where that you think of when you think of the Sheriff, or you think of the county administration. The general fund is kind of the administrative arm of the county.  

We have special revenue funds that include everything related to her, which includes public works and engineering.  

So that's a special revenue fund. We also have the jail district, which is a special fund. We have the health district which also has its own special fund. The library district has its own special fund, and the flood control district has its own special fund.  

So the overall county board of supervisors approves and determines what is going to be collected and spent in each of those funds. That we also have a debt service fund, we have a capital projects fund. And then we have internal service funds. So it's a you know, it's complicated, lots of different pools of money.  

We have hundreds of improvement districts across the county where a neighborhood will have wanted to put in streetlights. So they have a special improvement district just for streetlights.  

We have improvement districts for landscaping, we have improvement districts for general road maintenance. So different neighborhoods can add services taxing themselves, so only they pay for those services within their subdivision or neighborhood. 


LG: So it sounds like there's a lot of moving pieces that you have to keep track of not any of those unimportant. 


ST:  Right. And we also have a lot of grants that we get, especially in the health department, they have been very successful in getting a lot of state and federal grants, which means money's coming in from other places to benefit Yuma County, especially in the area of all of our health services.  

So we're very grateful for their active seeking out and being approved for a number of grants that are in addition to our normal local revenues and expenditures. 


LG: The general philosophy for the budget at the county? And is there a sort of a conservative approach small C, taken when looking ahead?  

You know, I said lots of big plans, you know, when the budgets generally discussed, and again, I'm sort of talking pre COVID, what's the attitude about the budget? 


ST: The Board of Supervisors has been very conservative; they've set some very strong policies for keeping a reserve or running rainy day fund. And we've been very successful at that, especially in the last several years, to make sure that we have sufficient funding if revenues fall short of our expectations, and we can keep the operations and services going to the public.  

They we take a baseline approach. So, we look at every single expenditure and whether it's necessary and what the level ought to be. We carefully look at new requests.  

So, we are not, we don't add too many programs or add too many positions in any given year. We're very good at our health care plan. We have a self-funded health care plan. And that's been doing very well. We have stable funds in all levels.  

And I think what this particular year, having our conservative approach really put us in a great position to have a number of one-time funds that we can use for one-time needs.  

That's the Board of Supervisors, supervisors is pretty conservative. Overall.  


LG: Not taking into account this current COVID funding, there was an expectation that last year would be a tough year. Do we have a sense now of where the county took a hit or didn't in that COVID year? 


ST: Right? We again, we budgeted very conservatively this past fiscal year because we thought it was going to hit us really badly with the way that the national news was heading the state news, all the things that we shut down and not. Basically, businesses were shut, restaurants were shut, theaters were shut. People weren't traveling.  

So, there was a lot of belief that there would be a huge impact on reduced revenues to the county and to all the cities.  

So, we assumed that the last four years, four months of the last fiscal year would be half the level that they usually are. That did not happen, they actually came in higher than the same four months in the prior year. So, I think Arizona as a whole, really did not suffer from the COVID shutdowns that many other parts of the country did. We were very surprised.  

I think it came from people staying at home, doing a lot of purchasing online, which is now taxable through the state of Arizona, at which then trickles down to cities and counties. And people did a lot of home improvements.  

So, they spent a lot locally to make improvements to their homes while they were at home not working or working from home.  

So there's that's where we saw a lot of other revenue that we wouldn't have expected. 


LG: This proposed budget tentative approval this week from the supervisors. What part of this budget is, quote, unquote, normal? And what part of this budget is the influx of COVID funds? 


ST: I would say our general fund going forward is and all of our special revenue funds are normal. The one exception is that we are adding a number of capital projects, which we have not done in the past.  

And we have also we've set up some special revenue funds for the federal funds that are coming through that will be passed through to other organizations or other specific programs that are allowed through the American rescue Plan act, and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Those are two major federal funds that didn't exist in the past.  

So, we had to create more than $50 million in additional revenue, special revenue funds in order to accept those funds from the federal government and then be able to expend those funds on the eligible programs. 


LG: What's the total amount of that tentative budget and how much of that is those federal funds?  


ST: Related to the specifically for American rescue plan is 41, a little bit over $41 million, then we have about $16 to $17 million from the emergency Rental Assistance Program.  

We're also anticipating in the budget appropriation that we may get additional funds from the federal government for instance, in if they do pass the American Jobs Act, which includes infrastructure projects, so we've added another $5 millions of appropriation authority, it's not any cash from anybody.  

But anticipating we would get that from the feds, because you can't spend it if it's not in your budget. You can't the budget authority has to previously exist; you can't make it up after the budget is approved. 


LG: As you say the some of the funds that were coming are specific for something, for example, the emergency Rental Assistance Program, that's a specific set of funding for a specific need. 


ST: Right? Yes. And that's been going well, we're administering that locally, some counties worked with the State Department of Economic Security and did it strictly through the state. 

 What we wanted to do local because we want a more hands on approach and helping people through the process because if it's strictly online, and it's strictly at the state level, people won't get the kind of individualized assistance they need to make sure that they qualify and they get all the money that they may be entitled to, to help with pass do rentals pass through utilities, and then also rent and utilities going forward for a number of months it can total up to 15 months for eligible individuals. 


LG: My guest today is Susan Thorpe Yuma County administrator. We're talking about the larger than normal budget on the table for Yuma County next year.  

When we come back, what are the limitations on some of the federal funds in the proposed budget? I'm Lou gum. This is Arizona edition on KAWC, we'll be right back. 

Welcome back to Arizona edition on KAWC, I'm Lou gum. My guest today is Susan Thorpe Yuma County Administrator.  

We're talking about the larger than normal budget on the table for Yuma County next year, the budget includes some federal funds through the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress. What if any, are the constraints on this federal money? Obviously, it's a one-time thing.  

Is it a spend it or lose it kind of thing? As you say, you've got to sort of note where you spend it, or you can't? 


ST: Yes. So let me talk a little bit about the American Rescue Plan act that has four specific areas that it can be used in, in addition to this emergency rental program is completely on rental.  

It's, it's rent and utilities only. With the American Rescue Plan act, you can spend money in areas where it and programs that qualify under either reduced revenues, which we do not qualify for, in Yuma County, any COVID related expenditures that enhance the ability to treat, prevent, or deal with COVID related expenses that you've already incurred. The third area is infrastructure, specifically water, sewer and broadband. And the county is really not in the water and sewer business.  

So but broadband is something that our Board of Supervisors is very focused on. We want to provide services throughout the county to especially to unserved and underserved areas. So that's our biggest focus.  

And then the fourth area that you can spend money on is, it's another area that I think we did not qualify for, because you have to have a reduction in revenue in order to qualify for certain categories.  

So really, I think the water sewer and broadband is the focus area for our Board of Supervisors. 


LG: There are some projects that the county has been looking at for a long time, what does the extra money make possible? 


ST: So the the money that the Board of Supervisors is utilizing on capital projects, is really from the conservative approach that was taken in the past year and prior years, where they've had a fund balance that was at least 20% of all expenditures in the budget.  

And the fact that we received more revenues than we anticipated, like $12 million more in revenues this past year than we anticipated, and we spent $5 million less than anticipated, those two combined, we ended up with $17 to $18 million going into fund balance, that then frees up that money to be used for one-time needs.  

So we don't have to look at changing the property tax rate, for instance, in order to do these major capital projects. So, the capital projects that we have on the books in the tentative budget include an administration and Board of Supervisors building in downtown, the health department either building either renovating the building or tearing it down and building a new one.  

And we have facilities management, information technology and public fiduciary who have been in manufactured home type environments for probably 20 years.  

And they relate those don't meet their needs, especially when you have high tech equipment that needs to be in a climate-controlled environment for information technology, and those three will end up sharing a building that will be built on the site of the old of the of the current manufactured homes that are there, off of Avenue B.  

Also, the capital project includes attack no water system, we're actually we're using grant funds for that USDA Rural Development grants. And with that, which is the water infrastructure Financing Authority, state funding to build a new water system for the people out in tacna in East County.  

And that's not local funds. It's all grant funds. But we have to, again, appropriate that money in order to spend it. We've got about four to $5 millions of necessary repair and replacement work in the jail, which is a 30-year-old building. So we're paying that with cash as well, because of the conservative approach that we've taken. 


LG: That might really change what the county, at least administration surely looks like in the next couple of years. 


ST: Well, I guess so our Board of Supervisors has said, we've taken care of everybody else's needs except our own. And so if you've been down to 198 South Main it's an it's a, you know, it's a repurposed bank building and the Board of Supervisors auditorium is very small and old and net, not really technologically up to date.  

So I think they're They are looking forward to having more of a multipurpose meeting room that will serve a lot of purposes, including the Board of Supervisors, meetings when they have the meeting meetings twice a month, but it will be a much nicer building, it will actually be built for the needs instead of moving into an existing building and trying to refit it to to to make it worthwhile.  

So it's something to look forward to, I think, but we're staying in downtown. I think that was important to the board as well.  

So we want to make sure that we're part of downtown revitalization. 


LG: Yeah, Yuma County is obviously quite big, though. For people who don't live in Yuma, who are, you know, in more rural parts of the county, where How might they see the benefits of this conservative approach by the county and this sort of little bit of extra spending this year? 


ST: Well, our main our library, our Library District reaches every part of the county. And so that's those are kind of like community centers, almost they were, they offer so many different services to the public that the public can access county services through their libraries.  

We do have a couple of offices, we have the court systems, both in Wellington and in South County, as well as operations there, we have some satellite facilities. For our Health District, we're looking at potentially more satellite facilities for the Health District, including in Somerton, there's been some discussion about that. And then in the future out in East County, so we have plans. Because of that come we're taking things one one step at a time, to make sure that we can afford what we're going to do and, and not extend ourselves and then not be able to sustain it. So fiscal sustainability and operational sustainability are very important.  

And that's why the other thing that we do is we have a 10 year long range financial plan that we use, when the board's making decisions, they see what those decisions look like over the long haul. So they make decisions today that they know they can sustain going forward to make sure we continue to have our healthy fund balance, and we're not dipping into reserves at the to the expense of providing services and operations for the public. 


LG: Just a couple minutes left. And I've got two more questions just in terms of process. This budget has a tentative approval, what happens next? 


ST: So when you have your Canada budget, that is the maximum that the board can adopt for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.  

So, we advertise that it's posted that the entire budget is posted, Canada budgets posted, its advertised, you'll see an advertise in the newspaper, we have something that's called the truth in taxation, posting that we are required to do by state law to let people know that we're about to adopt the budget.  

And so that advertisement goes for, I think two weeks, and then we are going to have a special meeting on June 28, where we'll have a public hearing for the budget will have a public hearing about the taxation, which we are not increasing any taxes and any of the special districts or the general fund.  

And at that time, once the public hearing is over and the board hears from the public on June 28, then they will adopt the final budget, which goes into effect as I mentioned July 1. 


LG: And finally, I just want to give you a chance. I've talked to so many people and it's been such a crazy year. 

I know that none of us got through this past year alone. And certainly, our work environment and how we all responded at work and the people we work with was something that made this year possible to get through for a lot of us.  

Can you talk about even though fiscally it looks like we didn't take the hit in the county? Obviously, there was a personal toll as we all reacted to the pandemic. Can you talk about the impact on your office and what you observed maybe in your staff and in the staff of the county that impressed you? 


ST: Yeah, the county staff is top notch. And I mean that we were in 44 different buildings across the county, everybody's doing? Well. We're in multiple types of businesses.  

We have at least 25 businesses and services that we provide to the public. And our staff kept those things going. No matter what.  

So, we were able to shift quickly and get some mobile devices so that people could work, work from home if they needed to. We were much more flexible than we would normally be as the government to allow that to happen. People kept their work up.  

There was no question about the service levels that we were providing. Staying at a high level, our health department, oh my gosh, they were on the front lines from day one and they continue to be there moving from you know, contact tracing on positive cases and, and reporting on large numbers of deaths.  

To now, we're having basically zero deaths. And they've moved from all kind of the focus on the negative to the focus on positive with all the vaccinations we're trying to offer.  

We're doing vaccinations three days, or four days a week at the health department, your vaccinations waiting for you. If you have not had one yet, please do that. Caring about yourself and others.  

So, I would say all of our staff has worked really hard to make sure that we deliver the services that county residents expect of us, and that we are, we're now open for business. We're open for services, and we care about the people that we serve.  

So, I do want to say how much I appreciate every single person who works for Yuma County and the county court system. 

It's been quite a year, and everybody has pulled together and stepped up and made it as positive and productive as it could possibly be.  

Most county employees are essential employees and so they've had a much more frontline experience this past year than most people, so I do appreciate all that they've been through and all that they've contributed to our community. 


LG: Susan Thorpe is Yuma County administrator. We've been talking about the Yuma County budget. As noted, the board is set for a public hearing later this month.  

We'll link to the budget and more information on our website Arizona edition is a production of KAWC Colorado River public media questions or comments about the program are welcome, send them to past programs are available  


 I'm Lou gum, This is Arizona edition on KAWC thanks for listening. 

Lou grew up in Tucson and has a long family history in the state of Arizona. He began his public radio career in 1988 at KNAU in Flagstaff as a classical music DJ and has been hooked on public radio since, transitioning to news after trying his hand at several other careers in publishing and commercial broadcasting. Lou has a degree in American Studies from Arizona State University and was KAWC's Morning Edition host for two and half years before becoming News and Operations Director.
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