BISBEE — The Cochise County Attorney’s Office joined the Sheriff’s Office in requesting the use of contingency funds to maintain staffing in the next fiscal year.
With an anticipated loss of around $2 million in revenue from the state’s business shutdown due to the COVID–19 pandemic, the county supervisors Tom Borer, Ann English and Peggy Judd are trying to meet the needs of all the departments with less money.
Taking money held in reserve to be used for dire emergencies is not an action they want to take. Instead, they have asked all departments to look for ways of cutting their 2020-2021 budgets or holding to last year’s amounts.
In a recent budget session with the supervisors, budget manager Daniel Duchon reviewed figures for the County Attorney’s Office (CAO) and suggested the amount of General Fund money remain the same as last year, at $3.276 million.
Last year the General Fund provided 60.5 percent of the CAO budget, with special revenues covering 35.5 percent.
However, special revenues provided by court fines, fees and surcharges are declining, noted County Attorney Brian McIntyre.
He explained to the Herald/Review, “As the criminal justice system shifts away from financial penalties, unsurprisingly, these funds run lower and lower. Because the county had staff costs in this fund lines, those individuals will have to be paid through General Fund.”
McIntyre did suggest during the work session he may be able to hold two positions open for an extended period of time to help offset budget issues.
“We do our best to be careful stewards of the public’s money,” he told the Herald/Review. “At the same time, the county does have a substantial rainy day fund which could and should be tapped prior to permanent cuts to public safety.”
Restoration to competency (RTC) is a mandated program, he explained, which is the process used when a person charged with a crime is found by a court to be incompetent to stand trial, typically due to an active mental illness or an intellectual disability. Drug addiction can accompany such illnesses. A criminal defendant must be restored to competency before the legal process can continue.
RTC is expected to rise by $133,000, to around $500,000, for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, according to Duchon.
McIntyre told the Herald/Review, “In the first quarter of last fiscal year, the county budget line for this was tapped completely, resulting in the need for an increase. At the time, RTC cost roughly $30,000 per defendant because of the need to use the Arizona State Hospital as Pima County’s RTC program was not accepting outside referrals. We now have an in-house RTC program again at the jail and our GRACe (Giving Recovery a Chance) program and anticipate substantial savings.”
Thirty-six individuals are in the GRACe program, added McIntyre.
“So far we have had great success, with individuals not only remaining law enforcement contact free, but also remaining engaged in treatment, obtaining housing and even employment. Because we’re only one quarter into the initial funding, I don’t have concrete stats to share, but what we are seeing so far is astounding.
“The cost to the county is the salary for the coordinator and associated costs of travel and training. I’m quite confident that if we can continue on this path, the county will save tremendously, to say nothing of the positive impact on these folks’ lives,” he added.
Even with help, some will reoffend and is “an unfortunate reality with the mental health population. There will always be outliers,” McIntyre said.
Currently, McIntyre is seeking a grant through the Legacy Foundation to help fund the GRACe program.
Then there is the Fill the Gap (FTG) mandate, which requires the processing of 90 percent of criminal cases within 100 days of filing, and is partially funded by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC) to provide an additional penalty assessment of seven percent on every fine, penalty and forfeiture imposed by the courts for criminal offenses, civil penalties, traffic violations and violations of Game and Fish laws.
According to ACJC, Fill the Gap is supposed to fund one pre-sentence investigator, who is responsible for completing pre–sentence interviews and reports. Judges use the information to complete sentencing hearings more efficiently. It also supports the use of Justices of the Peace Pro Tempore to allow judicial officers to attend mandated training and conferences.
The FTG revenue received by the county has not covered costs over the past four years, said McIntyre. Changes were made on the federal level in regard to low income people who cannot afford to pay fees and fines. This has influenced how judges assess their sentences.
Duchon replied to questions about the now-unfunded positions, “The funding for two positions has dried up, so these two positions will be moved from Special Revenue to the General Fund” in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
This move of one position has been anticipated due to the slow decrease of FTG funds, he added.
The second was position created when the county entered an intergovernmental agreement with Bisbee to provide legal counsel. Bisbee ended the contract last year. Now, the position will be funded through General Fund money.
“We’ll have to address those,” Duchon said.
Borer said, “Knowing what we don’t know now as to our status in the future is a huge challenge. Keep reviewing the budget for us and look at the worst case scenario. Do a ‘what-if drill.’ You know what you can and cannot do.”
Judd agreed and said, “Take a closer look at it.”
English noted, “We want to keep all of our employees, but we are close to the cliff’s edge.”
Rather than lose two employees, McIntyre said, “If because of the downturn, I have to work 80 or 90 hours a week rather than the 50 or 60 I put in now, I’d rather do that to keep the office going.”