Running up debts of more than $100 million qualifies Maricopa County's leaders to be called pound foolish, but that doesn't mean they are penny-wise.
While the bulk of the county's swelling fiscal crisis stems from loans that have piled up and been hidden with more loans, the county has also wasted a share of the money it does have to spend.
Last week, at the same meeting in which the Board of Supervisors considered emergency budget cuts to eliminate almost 300 jobs, board members voted 3-2 to continue giving supervisors Ed King and Mary Rose Wilcox--and King's top aide, Dick Bryce--free county cars to drive.
The two supervisors are among about 60 county employees--including top managers--who receive free cars and access to county-paid gas pumps and car washes.
The free vehicles have become a lightning rod for public outrage as the county's fiscal affairs have fallen into disarray.
King and Wilcox say they need the cars to cover their large districts. But fellow board member Tom Rawles labeled the cars' use "outrageous and egregious" at last week's meeting, saying the free automobiles set a particularly bad tone as the board considers firing hundreds of employees.
Other examples of county profligacy run the gamut from multimillion-dollar debacles to nickel-and-dime foul-ups:
As reported last year in New Times, the county wasted more than $12 million by purchasing and then throwing away a new computer system for the county's Health Care Agency (What's $12 Million Among Friends?" October 6, 1993). In that deal, the county bought an expensive IBM mainframe computer and most of the software needed to replace the agency's antiquated computing system. The new system was within a few million dollars of being finished when county officials decided they did not want to spend any more money on it--even though an efficient system was expected to save the county $18.4 million over four years.
So the IBM system was simply unplugged and hauled away.
The Health Care Agency, which loses tens of millions of dollars annually and represents a large part of the county's budget dilemma, still needs a new computer system. In fact, county planning documents and projections show, a new system will ultimately help the agency dig its way out of the hole by speeding up billing and increasing the amount of revenue flowing into the health-care system.
But since ditching the IBM system, county planners have yet to determine what system will be purchased, let alone where the money to pay for it will come from.
During the year it was throwing away the computer, the county gave away 225 acres of undeveloped land so the City of Chandler could build a golf course.
The property, located at the intersection of Riggs and McQueen roads, had been in county hands since the mid-1960s. (It was the site of a failed industrial-development park.) In 1991, Chandler officials and golfing advocates approached the county to see if they could lease the land for a new course.
Wayne Collins, the county's former public works director, opposed the deal before he was forced to resign over differences with then-county manager Roy Pederson. Collins says the county could easily have leased the land to a private developer, which would build the golf course and share a cut of profits with the county.
"We have three other golf courses that worked out fine that way," he says. "Why should we give a gift of land to the City of Chandler?"
But the gift was given. And what is Chandler doing with the land?
Arranging to lease it to a private developer for a golf course, says Dave McDowell, the city's leisure services and parks manager. McDowell, who claims not to know how much the property is worth, says the county originally was going to rent the land to the city, but then decided to just give it to Chandler.
"We get a golf course with no financial risk," he says. "It'll be a great deal for Chandler residents."
The county will give away a golf-course site, but Kim O'Connor of the Public Defender's Office has learned that it will not easily part with a wheel for a chair.
Last year, O'Connor, who has worked in the office for ten years, wanted some new office furniture, but didn't expect the county would be willing to pay for it. So she bought her own furniture, picking up a bargain from a law firm that was moving. "I had a lawyer's chair, and someone sat down on it, and the wheel broke," she says. "I called [the office's supply person] and asked if they can replace the wheel."
O'Connor was told she couldn't have a new wheel. She would have to take a whole new chair. She couldn't believe it.
"They can't replace my wheel, but they can buy me a new chair?" she asks. Instead of causing that senseless purchase, O'Connor has been sitting in her broken chair for almost a year.
Joan Bates, who works in criminal court administration, also had a simple request for her employers.
Bates says she recently needed what she calls a "hot file," one of those plastic gizmos with three angled slots that hangs on the wall and serves as an in-out box for the day's most pressing work.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
When she asked for one, she says, she was told the purchasing department couldn't buy it, because it would cost too much.
"When I requested it, they were telling me they couldn't get one because it was going to cost $200," Bates says.
A baffled Bates checked with a co-worker, who had also requested a box, and the colleague said she had been told the same thing. Bates called an office-supply store and was told what she wanted was available for $16. "I was going to go get the one for $16, but one of the girls in the office said there was a discount supply store down the street, the other side of the bail bondsman, that might sell it cheaper," she says.
The mailbox the county would have paid $200 for, Bates bought for $4.50.
"No wonder we're in trouble," she says.