La Paz County’s General Fund is $3.4 million in the red, according to a new report by financial consultants, and is poised to get even worse.
A presentation by outside accountants Jay Parke and Karen Ziegler paints a grim picture: a negative balance in the General Fund, “virtually no unrestricted cash”, “insolvent” accounts, and banks walking away from the County.
It calls to mind the County’s financial crisis identified in early 2017, which led to 30 employees being laid off, then Sheriff Bill Risen saying his Department was running “at a bare minimum” and then Superior Court Judge Samuel Vederman calling the situation a “disaster“.
The previous year, 2016, the County had a $2.7 million loss in its General Fund, and the losses have been gradually less severe since, with a loss of $772k in 2017, $582k in 2018 and $66k in 2019. But then, for the unaudited year 2020, the report suggests a loss of over a million dollars, and for the unaudited 9 months of fiscal year 2021, another loss of over $800k. This suggests that the total deficit could be $4.2 million by the beginning of fiscal year 2022.
This is not to say that the County has no money in its accounts. The report says that the County has over $8 million dollars in cash. But the cash is in the form of restricted funds, the majority of which are set aside for roads projects, debt service and special revenues. The County is insolvent in terms of the funds that can be used to run most County functions.
To get by, the County has been borrowing from the other funds to meet its obligations, which the consultants said needs to stop, because of laws and regulations prohibiting the funds’ use for other purposes.
Well Fargo bailed on the County during its last financial reckoning, and the County moved to Chase. Now, Chase is terminating its contract with the County too, leaving the County with a single choice of bank remaining.
“I’m so frustrated,” said District 2 County Supervisor Duce Minor, speaking to Parker Live after hearing the presentation at a Board meeting Monday. “As a Board we have not been given real numbers, all along, despite me asking for them many times. We were given good news last year by the previous County Administrator [Ron Drake], now we’re showing a huge deficit in the General Fund.”
Minor said Drake told the Parker Pioneer in an interview before leaving that the County was in great financial shape, something he repeated in conversations with Minor when asked about the financial situation.
“We can’t follow the County Administrator blindly,” Minor said. “During the election last year I referred to it as the tail wagging the dog. It’s not an acceptable way to run the County. I told the consultant I find it embarrassing.”
There is some good news coming, though slowly. The American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden will likely benefit the County to the tune of seven figures, contingent upon the County proving its revenues were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. New solar projects will be raising additional permanent revenue streams to the County within the next several years. And the County’s overall debt is decreasing, according to the consultants’ presentation.
Minor said he doesn’t think the pain points will be the same this time around, but said that the Board will be having some work sessions on the subject of belt-tightening across departments, and he believes there will be a hiring freeze as recommended by the consultants. He also said he thinks the Board needs a lot more detail on the County’s finances going forward.
“It’s not as simple as when you’re running your finances at home,” Minor said. “All your money is in separate silos, $5 million here in highway user funds, $1 million there for special revenues. When we would ask for information about the overall financial picture, we were always told that everything was looking good. I’ve been begging for formal financial reports to the Board for years, and now the consultant believes we should be doing it quarterly, maybe monthly.”
Minor said he believes the recently-hired County Administrator Megan Spielman will be a good fit for the task. Vederman, whose tenure as Judge ended in mid-2017, agreed. Spielman was Clerk of the Superior Court during his tenure.
“The Board of Supervisors will obviously have extremely difficult decisions to make in terms of where the budget will be cut,” he told Parker Live after we reached out to him. “Megan Spielman will provide the public with accurate information. The Board now has a County Administrator who puts the County first, which is much needed during this situation.”
The consultants also recommended analyzing the purchasing and travel card programs to try to gain tighter controls over County spending.