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Judge's Safety and Revenue Shortfalls Challenge the Town's Budget Process

New Silver City Poet Laureate Elise Stuart

Photo and Article by Charlie McKee

Mayor Michael Morones began the May 13, 2014, Silver City Town Council Meeting with two proclamations: 1) designating the week of May 18 to 24, 2014, as "Emergency Medical Services Week (EMS);" and 2) naming the Silver City Area's Second Poet Laureate, Elise Stuart.

In presenting the first proclamation to the team of Emergency Medical Technicians from Gila Regional Medical Center, Morones noted that the Town was "recognizing the value and accomplishments of 'EMS, Dedicated for Life.'" Former Mayor James Marshall, who was also present to receive the proclamation, stated that the team had handled 4,410 calls in a 12-month period.

Morones then proclaimed Elise Stuart the Second Poet Laureate of the Silver City area, succeeding Bonnie Buckley Maldonado, who was Silver City's first. Maldonado then read her recent poem, written in honor of the Warrior Hikers who are hiking the Continental Divide Trail, entitled "The Warrior Trail." Stuart followed, reading her composition entitled "The Gila River" and stating that it is an honor to be chosen as Poet Laureate. She explained that, as part of her endeavors as Poet Laureate, one of her goals is to work with youth in the community's schools and to encourage their creativity with the written word.

During the Public Input portion of the meeting, the following individuals spoke to the Council:
• Acting Fire Chief Tim Heidrick gave the Council an update on the Signal Fire, indicating that it was a wind-driven fire and detailing its statistics. He noted that the Hot Shot crews and smoke jumpers fighting the fire had been able to prevent the fire from jumping across Meadow Creek through their extremely hard work on the fire line. (Note: See latest Signal Fire updates on The Beat's Front Page News.)
• Walter Szymanski spoke to the Council in rebuttal of the comments made regarding Voter ID requirements by Peter Burrows at the Town Council meeting on April 21, 2014. Szymanski challenged Burrows to provide any evidence of voter impersonation fraud in any Silver City elections, stating that Burrows had not done so in his prior presentation to the Council, and urged the Council to keep the existing Voter ID requirements in place.
• Art Martinez spoke on behalf of the Committee to Promote Democracy, also urging the Council to maintain existing Voter ID requirements and stating that changes to the requirements in other jurisdictions have historically been intended to intimidate voters.

Silver City Police Department (SCPD) Chief Ed Reynolds then outlined the Police Department's organizational and budgetary details for the Council during the Reports section of the meeting. He stated that 90% of the $2.8 million 2014 SCPD budget consisted of personnel costs in salaries and benefits for the 38 people in the department. He explained that SCPD partners with County and State law enforcement agencies to maximize efficiency and leverage manpower across jurisdictions to protect residents. Reynolds also explained that the department receives grants to fund overtime work on special task forces, such as drug-related enforcement efforts, money-laundering investigations, etc.

During the New Business portion of the Council Meeting, the Council approved the following items relating to the Town's finances. Notices of Intent, as always, allow time for consideration of an ordinance and public input prior to the Council's voting on the approval or disapproval of the actual ordinance.
• Notice of Intent Ordinance No. 1228
This ordinance would authorize issuance of Town of Silver City Gross Receipts Tax Improvement Revenue Notes, Series 2014, not to exceed an aggregate amount of $1.5 million for capital improvements in public safety equipment and public recreation facilities. These would include 10 new police vehicles and two ambulances with $105,000 matching funds from the State of New Mexico; public restrooms at Scott Park Sports Complex with $125,000 matching funds from the State of New Mexico; and a clubhouse for the Scott Park Golf Course, which is owned by the Town of Silver City. The clubhouse would result in an additional revenue source for the Town. Chris Muirhead, bond attorney for Modrall Sperling Roehl Harris & Sisk, PA, explained to the Council that the bond issuance would be a private placement rather than a public sale and that the timing is excellent for extremely low interest rates. In addition, Town Manager Alex Brown stated that other refinancing debts are being paid off by the Town in this fiscal year, and this bond issuance would be in line with the Town's strategy to maintain its debt service at a constant level in order to provide the services to the Town's residents that they need and expect. The Public Hearing for the ordinance would most likely be at the June 10 Town Council meeting and, assuming approval of the ordinance at that time and further approval of a resolution consenting to the borrowing terms, the bonds would most likely be issued in the July 2014 timeframe.
• Resolution No. 2014-15
This resolution authorizes the execution and delivery of a Colonias Infrastructure Project Fund Loan/Grant Agreement with the New Mexico Finance Authority and the Colonias Infrastructure Board. The agreement requires the Town to borrow $36,000 (or 10% of the grant) in order to receive funding for a sewer lift station and new pressure sewer line along F Street. Brown informed the Council that the Colonias grant was awarded in March 2013, but the State's continuously changing requirements and new review processes have caused delays in the actual receipt of the monies for more than a year.
• Notice of Intent Ordinance No. 1229
This ordinance would amend the existing Ordinance No. 722, passed in 1984, to transfer the fourth increment of the Municipal Gross Receipts Tax from the Water/Sewer Fund to the Street Maintenance Fund. Brown emphasized that this is not the imposition of a new tax, but a redistribution of the funds to the Town's much needed street improvement projects.
• Notice of Intent Ordinance No. 1230
This ordinance would amend the Town's Municipal Code, Chapter 16, Article II, to take advantage of changes in New Mexico State Law regarding the Local Economic Development Act of 1978.

The Council also approved the Mayor's reappointment of Susan Musgrove as Vice President of the Silver City Museum Board.

In addition to approving the items above during the New Business portion of the meeting, the Town Council heard presentations from Judge Sonya Ruiz and Town Manager Alex Brown regarding the Town's budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2014-2015. Brown explained the recent years' trend of decreasing revenues to the Town for various reasons and increasing costs in maintaining the same levels of service. He asked the Council for guidance going forward in the budget process regarding how to address the shortfalls in terms of budget cuts. Brown highlighted the fact that the Town's departments have been operating understaffed for some time and that eight open positions have remained frozen since last year and have not been filled. He explained, however, that rising costs in employee health insurance and other benefits have increased expenses in spite of the cutbacks. In the proposed budget for the new fiscal year, Brown has completely eliminated three of the eight open positions, keeping the remaining five positions frozen until mid-year to see how the Town's revenues look at that point. In contrast, Ruiz's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2014-2015 requests an increase in funding to provide for a part-time Alternate Judge and a part-time Bailiff for the Municipal Court. Brown again asked for guidance from the Council to reconcile the additional staffing request from Ruiz with the cutbacks in the rest of the Town's departments. He noted that the only way to cut expenses was to cut services to the Town's residents or to raise taxes.

Ruiz explained to the Council that there had been a death threat against her two months ago and that her request for a Bailiff in the courtroom was an urgent request to have "another set of eyes and ears" to protect her, her staff, and the public. She reported that, since the threat, nothing has been done by SCPD to change her vulnerable situation in the courtroom. The Mayor stated that "we want you feeling safe and being safe" and that the safety of the courtroom was of paramount importance to the Mayor and Council. After considerable discussion the following ideas were floated, to be analyzed for future discussion:
• Are there any capital improvement monies that could be utilized for security measures in the courtroom?
• Might it be possible to obtain State funding (Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan) for courtroom security projects?
• Could the SCPD implement a "panic button" for the courtroom similar to that provided to the Western New Mexico University Museum?
• Could the Bailiff position be put on hold until January 2015, but implement other security measures in the interim?

Brown also reiterated to the Council the financial difficulties raised by the State's ending its Hold Harmless Gross Receipts Tax policy beginning in 2016, which will cause significant reduction in income to the Town. In addition, Brown stated that State grants are more and more difficult to obtain, with the State posing more and more obstacles to obtaining those that do exist. He also noted that State insurance and benefit costs keep rising, and these cost increases are out of the control of the municipalities. Brown emphasized to the Council that difficult choices—such as raising local property, sales, and lodgers' taxes, as well as changing water rates—would have to be made to address these issues. Morones urged Brown and the Council to "think outside the box" and try to come up with creative solutions to the budget issues prior to the next review of budget proposals.

After the New Business portion of the meeting was concluded, the meeting was adjourned.

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