It could be better, but it could be worse. That’s the consensus of some local government officials regarding the state budget impact to local budgets.
State sweeps of local funding in the last decade have cost cities and counties more than $1 billion. One of the biggest sources of revenue swept for other uses has been transportation funding.
The taxes and fees drivers pay to register and license vehicles, and the gasoline tax paid at the pump, contribute to a pot of funding called HURF, Highway User Revenue Funds. The money is designated for road maintenance.
In the past decade, the state has moved hundreds of millions of dollars a year of that funding to the Department of Public Safety, or other expenses.
“The amount of that diversion, that sweep, is about $120 million a year," statewide, said Andrew Greenhill, assistant to the Tucson City Manager. "That has come at the cost of the conditions of roads both in the city and the county. Cities and counties have lobbied hard to undo that sweep."
Lobbying is a critical part of getting local priorities across to state lawmakers.
“Our primary objective in dealing with the Legislature in the last few years years is to avoid being hurt by them, meaning they enact a piece of legislation that transfers an obligation to the county that we now have to pay for, or they’re diverting money that would normally go to the counties in balancing their budgets," said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
In some cases, that lobbying pays off. This year, a total of $30 million is being restored to local governments throughout the state.
Tucson is getting $1.9 million, and Pima County is getting $1.5 million.
The county's budget for roads next year is $50 million, so while more money is good news, Huckelberry said the amount the county is getting back is not staggering.
“While it helps, it’s certainly not going to solve our current maintenance problem and our need to repair our streets and highways," he said. "While nobody is going to turn away a million and a half dollars, it’s not going to go very far.”
A backlog of road needs – some of which accumulated as the state used road funding for other things - has left Pima County with a $280 million road maintenance need, he said.
“it’s a huge investment, obviously $1.5 million is going to help, but it’s like putting another band-aid on top of a band-aid,” Huckelberry said.
Other state decisions have cost Pima County money.
The state’s increased attention to fixing problems with the child welfare system has meant increased costs to the Pima County Juvenile Court system, Huckelberry said. The more the state investigates abuse and neglect allegations, the more custody cases end up in county courts.
Pima and other counties take on some of the cost when the state takes a person to court to revoke guardianship or parental rights.
“Each of the individuals involved is entitled to a defense attorney, so that means the father has an attorney, the mother has an attorney and the child has an attorney in order to sever those parental rights, so we’ve seen a doubling and almost tripling of severance and dependency cases in the county," Huckelberry said.
The previous $5 million public defense budget for these kinds of juvenile cases increased 20 percent, to $6 million, last year, he said.
The city of Tucson has been watching another issue: changes in city sales tax collection. Large cities collect city sales taxes directly from local businesses, Greenhill said. Starting next year, the state will collect the taxes, then send the money to the cities.
Tucson’s City Council is debating whether to charge businesses a new fee to cover technology and training costs to comply with the new tax collection system. They are also worried, Greenhill said, about getting the tax revenue back from the state quickly after the state gets it from the businesses.
“The city depends a lot on our local sales tax collection. That is our primary source of revenue that we use to pay our police officers and firefighters and run our services for the citizens," Greenhill said. "So any delay or any doubt that we may have that we’re going to receive those dollars in a timely manner can affect the way we do business.”
When will it be better, and how will local governments know better when they see it?
"When we say things are better is when we basically see no more HURF diversions and we see the state taking responsibility for some of those criminal justice expenses that they’ve basically imposed on the counties," Huckelberry said.