Saturday, February 9, 2013
Not having enough revenue is multifaceted problem

Butch Meriwether

For the Miner
With the continuing downslide of the economy and the lack of revenues flowing into most Americans' pockets, it seems as if everyone is having a hard time keeping their heads financially above water.

It isn't just the private sector that is experiencing the empty-pocket syndrome. It includes local government bodies such as the Mohave County government and also various fire districts that are individual taxing districts.

These fiscal tribulations being felt may be partially caused by the lack of sales tax revenues filtering into the various government agencies due to the slumping economy, which in turn makes people stop their impulse buying. That can put the retail industry into the hurt locker. A dollar can only be stretch so far.

Some of the fiscal problems being experienced by the various government bodies, such as individual taxing districts, may be attributed to people not having adequate funds to pay their property taxes. However, I honestly don't believe everyone can situate the entire blame on the various fire districts' fiscal cliff on people not paying their property taxes or, as some residents have attempted to imply, due to our county government not instituting aggressive measures to collect those delinquent property taxes. Everyone must realize the county is bound by certain statutory laws as to when and what they can do to collect delinquent property taxes. They just can't go and bang on someone's door right after the property tax is due and say, "pay up or get out." It just doesn't happen that way even though some people might think that would be a good idea.

Whatever the reason is for the lack of revenues, the situation isn't going to be solved tomorrow and there isn't any particular answer to the dilemma. I don't know about you, but my crystal ball just doesn't have an answer to this dilemma. I wished I could figure it out because if I had the capability to solving the dilemma and bring back people from the brink of bankruptcy, I would be a very wealthy man.

An example of a not having adequate funds to operate is Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District (LMRFD) located in the midwestern rural area of Mohave County. The district ran out of funds and can't even pay their employees' salaries. The particular reason for them basically going belly up may not be just because of not having enough funds coming in from property taxes, but could possibly be due to mismanagement of the fire district's revenues. It is hard to keep solvency if your expenditures are more than double of what was budgeted for and what revenues are coming into the fire district.

Because of the fiscal dilemma, the entire governing board of LMRFD tossed their hands up and resigned the other day, and the Mohave County Board of Supervisors had to step in and they hired John Flynn as an administrator to act as the fire board. His responsibilities and duties haven't yet been completely ironed out by the BOS, but may include him overseeing some of the day-to-day operations of the district.

All I can say is Flynn will have a daunting task ahead of him in an attempt to figure out what has to be done to bring solvency to the fire district. Part of his decision may include, but isn't limited to, consolidation of emergency medical services and fire protection, and possibly discontinuing the practice of providing service outside the district. His decision could even be the extreme measure of shutting down some of the fire stations. Flynn may even have to tell the residents of Meadview they need to restart their fire district again and run their own fire department. He could suggest to them that they need to hire a fire chief and an office assistant to run the day-to-day operations and the rest of the crew could be volunteers.

One of the bigger problems looming is there are way too many firefighters currently on the payroll of LMRFD and their ranks must be drastically trimmed in order to get the fire district back to where it needs to be. Flynn could offer the firefighters not currently needed a choice of going out on a non-paid-leave status and they would only be utilized on a pay-on-call basis, or he could discontinue their employment altogether and this could include Fire Chief Mark Hruz. Hruz has continually attempted to place blame on Mohave County for not collecting delinquent property taxes and fails to place blame on the LMRFD board of directors or himself for the fire district's financial problems. The one thing good about non-paid-leave status and would probably be more beneficial for them because if the district ever does get back financially on its feet, those firefighters on non-paid-leave status could be brought back without them having to go through the entire hiring process again.

Most people who reside in the Dolan Springs and Meadview areas agree that lack of funds for LMRFD may be because they have a propensity of them responding to emergencies outside of their district, most of which they are never reimbursed for.

An example of a fire district finally "putting their foot down" and not responding outside their district occurred in Picacho, Ariz. A resident's home caught fire and when he called the fire department, he was told it wasn't' the fire district's problem because the fire was three miles outside the fire district. As a result of the Eloy Fire District not responding to the fire, there were two homes that were totally destroyed.

Many of the problems of LMRFD also exists because of the enormous amount of bus and vehicular traffic on Diamond Bar Road that leads to Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk operated by the Hualapai Nation.

The Hualapai Nation is the only entity that benefits from the throngs of visitors to Grand Canyon West and particularly the Skywalk tourist attraction they operate. I don't know about you, but I can't ever recall hearing that the Hualapai Nation "stepped up to the plate" and provided any financial aid to the LMRFD for their emergency medical services or fire protection services for accidents along Diamond Bar or Pierce Ferry roads.

Last year the LMRFD and the Golden Valley Fire District (GVFD) both responded to an accident on Highway 93 in which a bus careened off the road, causing injuries to the passengers. As a matter of fact, it is widely agreed upon the bus was northbound on Hwy. 93 heading back to Las Vegas from Grand Canyon West with 48 Australian tourists who had visited the Skywalk. According to fire district and law enforcement officials who responded to the accident, they believe the bus driver suffered a massive heart attack and the bus veered off the road and crashed in the desert. All 48 passengers onboard the bus were injured in the accident, 15 of which were transported by ambulance to a hospital, and six others were in serious enough condition to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Las Vegas.

The LMRFD and GVFD were never reimbursed by the bus company or the Hualapai Nation for their emergency medical aid given to the driver and passengers. Ok, you might ask why the bus company and the Hualapai Nation should have assisted financially and the reason is simple; those tourists wouldn't have been on that bus heading back toward Las Vegas if they had not visited the Skywalk. So in a way, the bus company and the Hualapai Nation is partially at fault because if the bus and tourists hadn't specifically been driven to Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk, that bus accident would not have occurred.

Yes, I can hear the Hualapai Nation Tribal Counsel's plausible deniability; we didn't cause the accident and the heart attack of the bus driver so why should we help pay for any medical aid given to the accident victims of the bus accident or, as a matter of fact, any vehicular accident that occurs along Pierce Ferry and Diamond Bar roads.

Another thing that should be realized is because of the vast amounts of vehicular traffic on Diamond Bar and Pierce Ferry roads, the county has to spend taxpayer money to maintain the roads. So I say that the Hualapai Nation should realize it is their moral duty and obligation to help pay for the upkeep of the roadways utilized by bus and vehicle traffic that are heading to and from Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk.

I know there will be those who will say the county receives Highway User Revenue Funds and they should be only used to maintain those roads. Yes, these taxes represent a primary source of revenues available to the county for road construction, improvements and other related expenses, and some of those funds are gathered through the tax on fuel. However, everyone must remember the majority of the tourist buses and rental vehicles filled with tourists come from Las Vegas and they fuel up in Nevada and not Arizona; there is no fuel-tax revenue garnered from them that go into Arizona's coffers that in turn, trickles down to Mohave County in the way of HURF dollars. Those buses and rental vehicles cause wear and tear on those two roads and have no legal obligation to help pay for their upkeep.

Here is a novel idea that could solve the financial woes of not only LMRFD, but also can help the Mohave County government itself. Wouldn't it be nice if those two government bodies had deep enough pockets to pay for whatever they needed and also provided them financial stability to help balance their budgets?

Mohave County government could start up a new taxing district, in partnership with LMRFD, such as toll road and visitors' center. This toll road could be on the main county highway of Diamond Bar Road that is utilized as the main thoroughfare for the buses heading to and from to Grand Canyon West and to the Hualapai Nation's Skywalk. For the fun of it, let's call the new taxing district Skywalk Support And Visitors' Center Improvement District and a toll could be charged for all individuals who transit along Diamond Bar Road when heading to Grand Canyon West and the Hualapai Nation's Skywalk. There are currently 26 states, at last count, which have toll roads or turnpikes as they are referred to on the East Coast. I also bet that many of the other fire districts in Mohave County would "jump on the band wagon" and would want to partner with the county in regards to the toll road facility.

Before anyone starts jumping up and down and complaining the county will be instituting a new tax, they should understand a toll is not a tax increase; it is a user fee because people have the choice of whether or not to use the toll road. Hey, no one is twisting the arms of the tourists to drive to Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk. It is their choice and they should be required to help pay for emergency medical aid, fire protection and the maintenance/upkeep of the county's roadways, especially on those that lead to the Hualapai Nation.

I understand most state representatives believe a toll road should be a new road and not be on a preexisting road and Arizona Revised Statute 28-6804 stipulates, "A toll road shall not interfere with a highway in general use by the traveling public. If a toll road is established or if the prior right to maintain it has been acquired, another toll road shall not be constructed or maintained within one mile of either side of the road." Well, a light bulb has been burning brightly in my head and I have a brilliant answer to that law: abandon about a 500-yard portion of Diamond Bar Road; construct a new road adjacent to the older portion and because the portion of the road was abandoned, the new toll road wouldn't have to be a mile away; build a small toll booth; build a small building for administrative use; construct a visitors' center; and charge $5 per person who are transiting through the toll area and heading to Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk.

It is conservatively estimated that approximately 100 buses filled with about 50 tourists each drive to Grand Canyon West each day. That equates to approximately 5,000 tourists on the buses, and doesn't include the many tourists who choose to drive themselves to the attraction.

At $5 just for the bus riders (the bus driver would not be personally charged), that rounds out to about $25,000 per day, however is far less than the $85 the Hualapai Nation charges each tourist for allowing them to walk out onto the Skywalk. It is estimated the Hualapai Nation garners more than $1.5 billion annually from visitors to the Skywalk. As a stipulation of instituting the toll road, it would be understood that children under the age of 12 would not be charged, and all state, other government and emergency vehicles, in addition to all local residents would get a free pass through the toll booth.

According to state officials, toll roads cannot be constructed with tax revenues so Mohave County would have to find an investor willing to front the money to build the toll road and support structures. A conservative estimate would be it would cost less than $2 million to build the 500-yard roadway, toll booth, administrative office and visitor center. Just think, Mohave County could sell tourist items and make more money for the county's coffers. I don't know about you, but my wife and I would make the trip out to the visitor's center to buy a trinket or two just to support Mohave County, and we're always looking for a good deal.

This is how I suggest to distribute the revenue, based upon about 5,000 visitors each day, (the figures in parentheses are the projected annual revenues): $.05 per visitor ($91,250) to be placed in an interest-bearing account for maintenance and upkeep of the structures, toll booth and the toll road portion of Diamond Bar Road; $.50 per visitor ($912,500) to be paid to LMRFD for employee salaries for them operating the toll facility and visitor center; $1.25 per visitor ($2,281,250 - includes interest payment and their investment would be paid back in one year) paid to the investor who put up the initial finances and completed the construction of the facility and toll road; a $.02 royalty per visitor ($36,500) paid to the investor for a five-year period commencing after their initial investment was paid off; and $3.18 per visitor ($5,803,500) for Mohave County to be placed into the general fund and used by them to help balance the county's budget. The one thing the state of Arizona requires with toll roads is two percent of the gross proceeds from the road must be deposited, pursuant to sections 35-146 and 35-147, in the state general fund, so it would take away some of the net profits of each entity.

I figure John Flynn will have to bring his crystal ball with him when he begins the task of making LMRFD whole again. Then and only then can the residents of Dolan Springs and Meadview receive the emergency medical aid and fire protection they so justly deserve.

No matter what anyone says, I honestly believe the bus companies are making millions of dollars and the Hualapai Nation is making more than $1.5 billion each year off of the tourists. Those two entities must do their part by digging deep into their cash-lined pockets and help, not only the LMRFD with their financial woes, but also Mohave County with them maintaining Pierce Ferry and Diamond Bar roads. This way, they can claim the title of good neighbors and that they helped someone or something in need.
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