Shortly after being sworn into office more than seven years ago, Gov. Doug Ducey made it clear to the heads of every state agency that he wanted the needs of residents to be better served and to make Arizona an attractive location for businesses.
The result was the rollout of the Arizona Management System (AMS), a results-driven philosophy which empowers state employees to identify ways to make the government work more efficiently while eliminating waste, all with an emphasis on enhancing customer service. And AMS is paying dividends, according to several agency directors who recently provided updates to Ducey.
Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services
Building upon Arizona’s commitment to veterans, the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services embraced AMS to identify and work to solve the root causes of veteran suicides. Stakeholders -including the Department, the Governor’s Office, and the Arizona Coalition for Military Families- came together with a different approach to veteran suicide prevention.
The result, according to Col. Wanda Wright, is Arizona’s Be Connected program, which was recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with the 2021 Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award.
Arizona Department of Water Resources
Drought response and preparedness plays a vital role in guiding Arizona Department of Water Resources, but there was a time that the state’s water professionals had limited involvement in federal strategic planning related to drought.
Under AMS, ADWR expanded its network of experts in academia, the private sector, and industry groups to lead statewide drought planning efforts. One outcome, according to ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke, is Arizona’s active participation in the Intermountain West Drought Early Warning System.
Arizona Department of Transportation
Prior to integrating the AMS philosophy in Arizona Department of Transportation projects, stakeholders often complained that deadlines were of higher concern than local impacts. But with AMS in place, Director John S. Halikowski says ADOT employees are applying several innovative approaches to keep vehicles -and commerce- moving during construction projects to minimize potentially disruptive restrictions and closures.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality
Misael Cabrera was named director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality shortly after Ducey announced the AMS initiative in 2015. In response, ADEQ has developed the “My Community” dashboard to provide environmental and demographic map data on its website. The timely information is accessible via an easy-to-use, online tool the public can use to understand what ADEQ is doing to address environmental issues in various communities.
Arizona Department of Housing
Another state agency which embraced the AMS philosophy early on is the Arizona Department of Housing. It saw several increases in efficiency by implementing a more visual method of keeping staff updated on deadlines and department goals. And that has continued since Director Tom Simplot took the helm in 2021, with an emphasis on faster inspections and decision-making. More information on how AMS is improving state agencies is available here.
An audit revealed that the Arizona Department of Veterans Services (ADVS) failed to fulfill a number of key responsibilities. Major issues included a mismanagement of around $88,000 in funds, as well as violations of conflict-of-interest and open meeting laws. The Arizona Auditor General Lindsey Perry published the report at the end of last month.
Department and Commission met some statutory objectives and purposes, such as providing benefits counseling assistance to veterans and policy advice to the Governor, but Department did not comply with several Veterans’ Donations Fund grant award and monitoring requirements or use Gold Star Family revenues to maintain the Enduring Freedom Memorial and the Commission did not comply with some conflict-of-interest and open meeting law requirements.
The audit found that ADVS had accrued around $43,000 in funds meant to update the Enduring Freedom Memorial, which recognizes Arizona’s service members killed or injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to the report, none of the funds were used. The memorial hadn’t even been updated to reflect all service members’ names since 2013: 3 years after the memorial was established.
Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, State Senator Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) issued a press release indicating that ADVS wasn’t updating the Enduring Freedom Memorial. Townsend said that the families contacted her in the fall of 2019 about the issue. In response, she pushed for language in the budget that would offer more fund sources for ADVS to update the memorial.
Townsend remarked to AZ Free News that this audit confirmed the Gold Star Families’ suspicions. She added that she was grateful that the budget included her language to provide more funds for the memorial.
“One of the key findings of a just-completed audit of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services by the Auditor General confirms that the Department had not used more than $43,000 in Gold Star Family specialty license plate revenues to maintain the Enduring Freedom Memorial,” said Townsend. “Fortunately, I worked hard to make sure language was included in the budget to allow the Department of Administration to use money in the State Monument and Memorial Repair Fund to update the memorial.”
The remaining $45,000 that ADVS mismanaged came from uncollected payments from the Arizona American Legion. ADVS rendered has given veterans’ benefits counseling services to the legion since 2014. According to the audit, ADVS failed to collect $45,000 in payments from 2019.
The audit also found that ADVS made a faulty contract with the Arizona American Legion. ADVS agreed to an indefinite contract, State Procurement Code limits state agency contracts to 5 years unless the department head includes a written justification for an extension. Furthermore, the contract required legion payments to be remitted to the Veterans’ Donation Fund rather than the State General Fund, though the legion payments didn’t qualify by statute as gifts, contributions, or other public donations.
The audit also found that ADVS violated conflict-of-interest law by failing to have all committee members complete a conflict-of-interest disclosure form, and failed to have employees and public offices annually update their conflict-of-interest disclosure forms. ADVS also reportedly failed to offer a process to avoid and remediate any potential conflicts of interest.
As for open meeting law violations, the audit revealed that 4 of the 8 meetings they sampled failed to have minutes posted within 3 working days, and 1 meeting which wasn’t posted about 24 hours in advance.
In summary, the auditor general recommended that ADVS comply with the laws on grant management, conflicts of interest, and open meetings; spend the $43,000 in Gold Star Family specialty license plate revenues to maintain the Enduring Freedom Memorial; and collect the $45,000 owed by the Arizona American Legion while reviewing the need for that contract.
At length, the audit did note a number of other issues. These included inadequate safeguarding and exceeding award limits of relief fund monies; noncompliance with legal requirements for awarding and monitoring large and small Veterans’ Donations Fund grants; failure to retain required, proper supporting documentation for some transactions; and noncompliance with Arizona Strategic Enterprise Technology Office (ASET)-required information technology (IT) policies and procedures.
The audit did commend ADVS for assisting nearly 40,000 beneficiaries in receiving around $56.6 million average in monthly compensation and benefits.
According to the state, Arizona has around 504,000 veterans.
ADVS agreed with the audit findings, and indicated they would comply with the auditor general’s recommendations.
Gov. Doug Ducey wants to remind the more than 50,000 military veterans living in Arizona that he signed legislation which now fully exempts military pensions from state income taxes.
“Veterans put the safety of our great nation first. We should honor their service, not tax it,” Ducey tweeted this week.
Arizona’s tax code previously exempted only $3,500 of a veteran’s military pension. Getting it to a full exemption was something Ducey announced as a priority during his January 2020 State of the State speech, but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all but priority budget considerations.
When the new legislative session convened in January 2021, the governor once again made tax relief for veterans a priority. It took until the last week of June, but the full exemption passed and Ducey signed the legislation.
“Our nation’s greatest heroes will no longer pay taxes on their retirement pay. This saves the average veteran an additional $650 a year,” Ducey said after signing the bill.
In addition to the pension income tax exemption, the Fiscal Year 2022 budget package signed by the governor includes $25 million for construction and operation of a State Veterans Home in northwestern Arizona. Additional funds were appropriated for operating State Veterans Homes recently opened in Flagstaff and Yuma.
Nearly $775,000 was appropriated to ADVS for the hiring of 12 additional Veteran Benefits Counselors, and the budget includes $100,000 earmarked for distribution to a charitable organization located in southern Arizona to work with regional Veterans organizations to improve services which can reduce Veteran suicides.
Ducey also signed SB1802 which establishes the date every August when Arizonans will recognize National Navajo Code Talkers Day.
Among those getting the word out to veterans is Col. Wanda Wright, director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services (ADVS).
“This budget is a real win for Arizona Veterans,” Wright posted to the ADVS website. “It further proves that here in Arizona, we honor and support service members, Veterans and their families.”