By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Moody's Investment Services, which passes judgment on the county's fiscal health when giving it a bond rating, had no trouble discerning that the $64 million represented accumulated operating deficits. Moody's response was pointed. It immediately downgraded Maricopa County's bond rating.
Today, county financial planners estimate, there is about $146 million in internal and external TANs outstanding. Nearly half of that amount is old debt that the county has been rolling over and over.
"The existing deficit, to my mind, is the rollover amount in the $50 to $60 million [range]," says the county's new chief financial officer, Deborah Larson.
And the deficit is expected to grow even more because of continuing losses at the county hospital.
Given the county's constant hunt for new sources of cash, observers say, it is hard to believe that the supervisors could not perceive they had a serious budget problem. The county's money movers could not borrow without the board's authorization.
The frequent financial fire drills to come up with cash should have raised questions in the minds of board members. "If you know how to read the [financial] statements, this should be pretty apparent. There's no way to hide these numbers on the financial statement," says Tim Hogan, head of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, a government watchdog group.
Even if the problem wasn't obvious, he says, the county's audited financial statements clearly showed a dramatic decline in the county's cash reserves, which should "at least cause you to ask questions."
Bruner and Bayless say they were never told when they authorized borrowing that some of the money was being used to paper over old debts. "There was never any indication to us, and it is something I never would have approved," Bruner says.
Whether Bruner, Bayless and the other supervisors truly knew what was happening, the ensuing debt speaks for itself.
"I think it is a lose-lose situation," says Moody's assistant vice president Chris Mushell. "I wouldn't want to be on the Board of Supervisors and say, 'Yeah, I knew it,' or say, 'I didn't know it.'"
@body:Even as county supervisors were casting about for easy credit fixes, they apparently did not look at the most obvious source for boosting revenue--the County Assessor's Office.
While revenue paid to Maricopa County has steadily increased throughout the 1990s, the amount of money flowing into county coffers is nowhere near as great as it could be.
"The county has plenty of money, it's just not being picked up," says former supervisor Freestone.
But for the last dozen years, Maricopa County's attempts to collect its fair share of taxes from county property owners has been feeble, at best.
Since his election in November 1992, County Assessor Pete Corpstein has been trying to reform the agency responsible for raising 20 percent of the county's revenue. When Corpstein assumed office, he found it grossly understaffed, saddled with an antiquated computer system and hopelessly behind in assessing nearly a million parcels of property.
"We don't have the number of employees you really need to do the job," Corpstein says.
The staff shortage is ironic and foolhardy, because Corpstein's office offers the county its best potential source of increased revenue.
"I'm the only one who can get more money for them," he says.
Corpstein estimates there are 4,000 homes and 25,000 building additions that haven't been included on the county's property-tax rolls.
"We know we got property out we have to put on the rolls. We've got pictures showing it. It's no trick," says Corpstein.
Getting these homes and additions on the tax rolls would translate into about $1 million annually in new revenue to Maricopa County government and another $7 million to other local governments, including cities and schools, he says. But the problem, according to Corpstein, is a serious lack of manpower to process the paperwork, deal with a mountain of tax appeals and appraise hundreds of thousands of parcels of property each year.
Nearly 600,000 parcels are years behind in being reassessed to capture increases, or decreases, in their values. As a result, while the Maricopa County real estate market is roaring, the total value of county property, as listed by the county assessor, continues to fall. The county's assessed value on property in Maricopa County declined to $13.8 billion in 1993, down from $14.7 billion in 1991.
This decline represents a $19 million drop in property taxes owed to Maricopa County government, because the Board of Supervisors did not raise property-tax rates to compensate for the decline in assessed values.
Adding to Corpstein's problems is the county's cumbersome property-tax appeals system. Corpstein says at times, three-quarters of his 295-person work force is tied up handling 25,800 commercial property-tax appeals filed each year.
Many of the appeals are filed by tax consultants who overwhelm the Assessor's Office with paperwork. Corpstein says a high percentage of the appeals could be eliminated if the state required commercial property owners to provide proof of a property's value, such as a fire-insurance policy, rather than allowing tax consultants to present less-concrete valuations.
Many of these appeals, Corpstein says, are flagrant attempts by commercial property owners to cheat the county out of revenue. But because of staffing shortages, the tax assessor says, his office cannot adequately fight those illegitimate attempts to reduce the value placed on commercial land and buildings. And when the values are reduced, the county's tax income falls accordingly.