Concerns about potential cuts to school district budgets if Arizona voters don't pass Proposition 100 in May have been well publicized, but education spending isn't alone on the chopping block.
If the sales tax vote is defeated, Arizona would cut millions of dollars from public safety and health and human services. If that happens, counties across Arizona would face significant spending increases because of anticipated large-scale transfers of costs away from state government.
"This is nothing more than a program and cost shift from the state to local government," said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. County analysis shows a possible transition of more than $13.5 million in expenses, normally borne by state government, onto Pima County.
When the Legislature passed a series of budget bills last month, it included an agreement to put Proposition 100 on the ballot for the May 18 election. The proposition would impose a 1 percent statewide sales tax increase to supplement spending cuts to public education, public safety and health and human services budgets. The tax would expire after three years.
One-third of the potential $1 billion in annual sales taxes the proposal is expected to raise would be split between public safety and health and human services agencies, while public education would get the rest.
If the proposition fails, the Arizona Department of Corrections would be forced to cut at least $63 million from its budget, according to a department spokesman. In addition, thousands of inmates in state prison would be transferred to county jails.
In an effort minimize the state's budget deficit, state lawmakers approved in the budget package a bill that mandates the transfer of all inmates who have one year or less remaining on their sentences to county jails, and to have county jails house anyone sentenced to a term of one year or less.
As result, Pima County officials estimate its jail population would nearly double, with an influx of approximately 1,800 prisoners.
The maximum capacity at Pima County Adult Detention Center in Tucson and a smaller facility in Ajo totals about 2,240 inmates. Pima County officials anticipate some of the inmates from state prisons could be absorbed into the system; however, they estimate the transfer of inmates would leave an immediate capacity shortfall of more than 1,300 beds.
To make up the difference, "our property tax would have to be increased 17 percent," Huckelberry said.
A county analysis of the impact to Pima County if Prop 100 fails puts the immediate costs at a minimum of $13.5 million. But officials say the costs to Pima taxpayers would be considerably more, primarily because the shift would require the building of new facilities and the hiring of more people.
County officials have discussed several options to house the influx of prisoners.
One option would be to triple-bunk inmates in existing facilities, which could put Pima County Adult Detention Center's inmate population at three times its design capacity, according to a Pima County Sheriff's Department analysis.
Female inmates at Pima County Adult Detention Center could be transferred to a facility for juvenile offenders to help make room for inmates transferred from state prisons.
The county administrator said such overcrowding could have legal ramifications.
The estimated costs for this option could exceed $50 million in capital and operating expenses, he said.
Another possibility would be to build semi-permanent structures to house inmates on jail grounds or another facility on South Mission Road, which would cost about $40 million, according to county estimates.
A further possibility would be to build an entirely new jail facility, which could cost as much as $150 million and take five years to complete, the county said.
County officials have explored other options as well, including converting various private or government-owned buildings into inmate housing facilities. Among the buildings proposed for this option are a vacant hotel at South Sixth Avenue and Interstate 10 in South Tucson, Tucson Electric Park and Tucson Unified School District schools slated for closure at the end of the term.
One of the schools listed in county documents as a possible jail facility was Wrightstown Elementary School, TUSD's oldest school and one surrounded on all sides by residential neighborhoods.
Huckelberry said the option was the least attractive of those presented because of the proximity to residential areas and the anticipated expenses associated with fortifying the buildings to make them secure enough to house potentially dangerous offenders.
"They're not at all desirable," Huckelberry said.
State legislators from District 26, which includes Oro Valley and other parts of the Northwest, were mixed on the predictions from county officials.
Democratic Rep. Nancy Young Wright sympathized with county leaders on the possible cost shift.
"It has a huge impact on Pima County," Young Wright said.
She also questioned the wisdom of transferring obligations onto county governments and, by extension, county taxpayers.
"What's the point? What good does it do the average taxpayer?" Young Wright said.
The two Republicans in District 26 had different takes on the issue, with Rep. Vic Williams suggesting county officials have tried to fuel unwarranted controversy, and Sen. Al Melvin saying a measure of creative thinking among county leaders was needed.
"I'm hearing Chuck Huckelberry talking about housing people in ball parks," Williams said. "Anyone saying that should lose their job."
Williams, who has come out in support of Prop 100, said counties need to find ways to cut spending the way state lawmakers already have.
"Fanning the flames of fear to your general public is not the answer," Williams said.
An analysis conducted by county officials estimates the state has transferred more than $33 million in expenses onto Pima County over the last three years. In addition, Huckelberry said, the county has reduced spending by more than $63 million since fiscal 2009.
Melvin, who said he voted to have the proposition put on the ballot, was worried about the increased burden on taxpayers the added sales tax would have.
"I'm concerned about the 15,000 private-sector jobs that will be lost," Melvin said, citing an economic analysis of the sales tax proposal.
The senator also said counties would not necessarily have to incarcerate the returning prisoners in jails. He suggested using house arrest and GPS ankle bracelets on low-risk offenders.
For others, he said counties could put them to work in county-run animal care facilities, road work projects and graffiti abatement programs as a means to defray some of the costs.
Huckelberry said the county currently uses inmate labor, but questioned whether there would be enough work for prisoners to do. He also doubted the real cost-savings such a proposal would produce.
The county administrator said he guessed the use of inmate labor would offset about 10 percent of the costs associated with the influx of prisoners.
"It's not a bad idea," Huckelberry said, "but it's not going to solve this problem or even come close."