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Auto Theft Authority jeopardized by cuts of $1M in 2010

If the latest budget proposal passes, the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority will have to operate without roughly two-thirds of its annual state funding. The Legislature reduces that agency’s budget by $1 million in its fiscal 2010 budget plan.

The first $500,000 was cut as part of a deal brokered among Republicans last week. A few days later, another $500,000 reduction was included the proposal at the request of Sen. Jack Harper, a Republican from Surprise.

These reductions come just as it seems the agency is making measurable progress in combating one of the state’s major sources of crime.

Phoenix dropped to 19th in 2008 from eighth in 2007 on the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s list of auto-theft hotspots in the United States. Tucson also tumbled to 13th in 2008 from 10th in 2007.

Authority Interim Director Ann Armstrong said she is concerned about losing funds that help her agency coordinate its efforts throughout as much of the state as possible.

“Without those dedicated funds and without a dedicated, coordinated effort by one agency in cooperation with hundreds of law enforcement and criminal justice partners, I really do not believe this effort would be as effective as it is,” she said. “We wouldn’t be seeing the reductions that we’re really starting to see.”

The agency pays a significant portion of the salaries of the members of the Automobile Theft Authority Task Force, which lost eight full-time employees when the agency’s budget was reduced last year, impacting operations in Cochise, Maricopa, Mohave, Pima, Yavapai and Yuma counties. According to a Theft Authority fact sheet, the task force stands to lose five to seven more members with further budget reductions.

“(Additional budget cuts) will severely cripple its (task force) efforts. The task force, in addition to doing recoveries and special investigations and operations, they’re also assisting other agencies with vehicle theft cases, they’re doing public education,” said Armstrong. “They’re out there really hitting the auto theft problem from several angles.”

The agency also pays portions of the salaries of prosecutors in several county attorneys’ offices to enable them to focus solely on vehicle theft cases. Cuts in 2008 resulted in attorneys in Cochise, Mohave and Santa Cruz counties not being able to participate in what is called “vertical prosecution,” in which the same attorney stays with the case from start to finish. Armstrong said if the proposed cuts happen in fiscal 2010, the remaining programs in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties will also have to be scrapped.

“Those prosecutors we fund in county attorney offices are really having an impact with some really harsh jail time and probation time as well as helping educate judges that auto theft is more than just a property crime,” said Armstrong.

Tough times have affected all government-funded agencies, and Armstrong indicated the Authority will do the best with what it has in combating this pervasive problem.

“The auto theft authority board had some really difficult decisions to make this year trying to put the funding where resources are needed the most,” Armstrong said. “But really, resources are needed everywhere.”

- Matt Bunk contributed to this story.

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