Don Stapley: Maricopa County government is performing quite well, even in the face of dramatically reduced revenues and yes, a few highly publicized political struggles.
It’s disappointing, even sad, to witness the ongoing stalemate on the state budget down at the Capitol, a game of chicken that has turned angry and mean-spirited. I know many of the elected officials involved, worked closely with a few and served on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors with Gov. Jan Brewer. So it is painful to watch this impasse grow ugly.
Many residents might figure that county government is in the same fix, capturing headlines for political infighting, even lawsuits. But appearances are deceiving. Maricopa County government is performing quite well, even in the face of dramatically reduced revenues and yes, a few highly publicized political struggles. Consider:
Practically all jurisdictions in Arizona — state and local government, counties, cities and school districts — have cut their budgets during the economic downturn. But Maricopa County started earlier than most, and did so intelligently, with an emphasis on trimming administration and adding efficiencies, not by just cutting services. The budget plans were developed cooperatively, from the bottom up, not from the top-down. These policies empowered our department managers and most elected officials. The passage of a $2.1 billion General Fund budget, $122 million lower than the previous year, demonstrates that the strategy not only worked but was well received.
I would hardly characterize our five supervisors as going along in lockstep. There are political, partisan and philosophical differences among us. Yet we share a common vision of a professionally run, well managed, financially solvent county government, one that anticipates, not just reacts. Over the past decade, the county has followed a “pay-as-you-go” policy to meet both capital and recurring expenses. We don’t borrow against the future. Currently, the county’s general obligation bonded indebtedness stands at zero, amazing for a rapidly growing urban county of 4 million residents.
The board has also sought to keep its stable management. County Manager David Smith and many department directors have served the county for a number of years. Maricopa County has been recognized, by Governing Magazine, as one of the “Best Run Counties” in the nation. But we don’t rest on our laurels. Our leaders push to find better ways to deliver value and service.
One example is the “Managing for Results” project which imposes a regimen of accountability and evaluation on county employees and their managers. Another major initiative is “Green Government.” Businesses and governments are just now starting energy-saving programs Maricopa County has already implemented. County employees who commute via bus or light rail have their trips totally subsidized. A year ago, the county launched a comprehensive energy audit, with detailed inspections of 133 buildings designed to save on the county’s annual $20 million utility bills. We’re applying for a federal stimulus grant to install solar water-thermal heaters on several jail facilities, designed to save almost $100,000 a year.
Maricopa County takes advantage of its strategic alliances with other governmental jurisdictions. An important partner this year has been the County Supervisors Association, a well respected voice at the state Legislature. And the National Association of Counties has taken us to the negotiating table as the Obama administration forges fresh relationships with states, counties and cities.
It has been a tough, occasionally frustrating year. The headlines have not all been flattering. But Maricopa County government can boast a host of success stories. With more to come.
Don Stapley is a Maricopa County supervisor and president of the National Association of Counties. He is a Mesa resident.