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10:20 PM Tue, Sept. 25th

Money matters dominate regional cooperation discussion

PRESCOTT - Facing a widespread revenue pinch, local officials this week discussed working together to hold the line on salary increases - especially in the expensive law enforcement field.

At Monday night's gathering of the Regional Association of Local Governments at Prescott's Manzanita Grille, Prescott City Manager Steve Norwood kicked off the discussion on regional cooperation with an appeal for solidarity on wages.

"We're all in the same boat," Norwood said of the ongoing economic downturn.

While local governments currently pay their police officers similar salaries, Norwood worried that raises could cause a "feeding frenzy" of competition in the area.

Noting that all governments have a difficult time hiring and keeping police officers, Norwood said pay increases in one community could entice officers to switch jobs for better pay, which in turn could require other governments to increase their pay rates to compete.

Norwood suggested a "gentlemen's agreement" that area governments would not increase salaries for police officers without letting the other entities know about it first.

"Maybe we could have an agreement where we would feel compelled to keep it pretty flat," Norwood said of salaries.

Outgoing Chino Valley Town Manager Bill Pupo agreed that police officers' salaries have been on the increase for a long time because of competition from metro areas such as Tempe and Chandler.

As an example, Norwood said an officer recently left the Prescott Police Department for a job in El Mirage, which paid a large signing bonus.

Norwood stressed that the cost of police officers and firefighters goes beyond just salaries; retirement benefits also affect budgets significantly. Just for public safety retirement benefit costs alone, Norwood said the city is facing a $450,000 increase in the coming fiscal year.

On Tuesday, Prescott Budget and Finance Director Mark Woodfill reported that the city already pays about $1.8 million in retirement costs for its policemen and firefighters. The $450,000 would push that to well more than $2 million for the 128 public safety employees.

That compares to about $2 million that the city pays annually for retirement for all of its other 476 employees, who participate in the Arizona State Retirement System.

That is contributing to a financial shortfall that the city is projecting at about $1.4 million through the end of the current fiscal year.

Most area governments also are facing shortfalls because of declining sales-tax and building-permit revenues, coupled with greater costs.

Chino Valley Mayor Karen Fann also referred to "budget restraints" when she announced that the town's Development Services Director and Assistant Town Manger Gerald Stricklin would take on the duties of town manager indefinitely after Pupo's departure this week.

And later - while discussing the need for a regional household hazardous waste dumping day - Fann reported that Chino Valley was looking to cut $800,000 from its budget. Therefore, she said, "Adding to it is not even an option."

The Regional Association of Local Governments is an organization of elected officials and staff members that meets quarterly to discuss issues of common interest.

About 40 people from Prescott, Prescott Valley,

Chino Valley, Yavapai County, and the Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization attended Monday night's meeting. Although Dewey-Humboldt also is a part of the organization, no one from that town attended.

Other issues on the agenda included updates on the county's plans to build a juvenile detention center on Prescott Lakes Parkway, as well as Prescott's ongoing improvement projects on Iron Springs and Copper Basin roads.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com