[Editor's Note: This is part 4 of a multipart series of articles on the Grant County Commission work session on January 22, 2019 and regular meeting on Jan. 24, 2019.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
Right after the election of Grant County Commission chairman and vice chairman at the regular meeting held on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, which can be read at http://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/48820-grant-county-commission-regular-meeting-starts-out-contentiously-part-3-012419, County Manager Charlene Webb announced that the Road Department had had 491 days without an accident.
"It is with great pleasure that I recognize the members of the Road Department for a string of days without a lost time accident from September 2016 to August 2018," Webb said. "I hope you continue the good work. I consider this an outstanding accomplishment."
Commission Vice Chairman Billy Billings, who was continuing to lead the meeting at the request of just elected Chairman Chris Ponce, thanked the members of the Road Department for their culture of safety without a lost time accident.
At the work session, Emergency Management Director, Gilbert Helton said he has been working with the Safety Committee. "There is very sincere attention to safety throughout the county. It's apparent by how they work. We have a very active committee. I want to begin recognizing those who achieve high levels of safety."
The commissioners presented a framed certificate of recognition to the Road Department for their 491 days straight without an accident.
The next item on the regular meeting agenda was a public hearing to consider an ordinance to offer a low-income property tax rebate.
At the work session, Webb had said that to be eligible for the rebate, the property owner and all those living in the home would have to have a combined income of $24,000 or less. Commissioner Javier Salas asked if the county had any statistics or data to look at to determine how much of a hit it would be.
"We have no statistics or data, so we have no way to know how much it would cost," Webb said. "The Santa Fe County manager told me she wished they didn't have the ordinance, because they never know how much it will cost."
Commissioner Harry Browne said he understood why it would vary by the individual, but "I'm surprised we can't determine an overall amount."
Attorney Abigail Burgess said Santa Fe started high, but it kept increasing each year probably as more people figured out how to take advantage of it. "In about 2013, I did a rough estimate and at that time figured it could run us between $60,000 and $100,000. It's very difficult to budget for it because it can jump. I came up with the number by comparing our population to Santa Fe's, but our community likely has a larger population of those who would qualify."
Commissioner Alicia Edwards said it could increase more rapidly than property tax revenue.
Browne wondered if it could be capped, to which he was told there was a mandated cap of $350 per property.
Edwards said she didn't think property tax was where it should be considered.
Commissioner Chris Ponce made the observation that the assessor has programs in place for seniors and low-income people.
"Yes, we do have programs in place," Assessor Raul Turrieta said. "At this moment we have a valuation freeze for those over the age of 65 making under $35,000. They have to come in and file three years consecutively then the rate stays frozen. We have about 65 property owners who file now. They have to present their combined modified gross income tax returns. If they don't file tax returns, they have to have a letter from the federal government."
Other programs are freezes for head of household. Those who are 100 percent disabled are off the property tax rolls until the property is transferred.
Webb requested that public input be heard first. No one came forward.
"My recommendation has not changed," Webb said. "I recommend not to approve this ordinance due to its unknown hit to the budget. It's hard for me to recommend something that may negatively impact the county budget. There are only two counties in the state that have the ordinance —Santa Fe and Los Alamos. Santa Fe in its first year of the ordinance in 2009 paid out $300,000. In four years, it was over $500,000. I attempted to reach out to Santa Fe to get some newer numbers but did not hear back. I fear it might require us to cut services and employees."
Browne said he is feeling less scared about the ordinance. "I would be interested to see the impact, maybe say, have the ordinance for one or two years."
Edwards said those who would qualify would likely be seniors who owned property. "But what would some people who would benefit potentially lose in services? Would it hurt more than it helped?"
Salas said many in his district would likely qualify. "But I can think of at least 10 who have never applied for the freeze."
Webb noted that Santa Fe has a drastically different budget and different demographics. "The demographics of Santa Fe and Grant County are at each end of the spectrum."
Edwards said the county should make sure, at the very least, that those eligible for the freeze get it.
Turrieta said he goes to the senior centers and announces the freeze on the radio, but since the program started only 60 some have applied. He said the Assessor's Affiliate at the state level was considering lowering the income level for seniors to qualify.
At the regular session, the discussion continued.
"I think the manager does her job perfectly," Browne said. "I feel this is the right thing for us to do. It's hard to make life better for our most vulnerable. If you look at the flip side Santa Fe vulnerable residents have $500,000 more than they did before the ordinance. I think we've never been in as good a position to take a risk. We have a cushion in the county; the state is flush. I don't think we're looking at cuts from the Legislature. If we enact it, we can find out how many are at risk."
Billings asked if there were a way to put a limit or sunset on the ordinance. Webb noted that an ordinance could be repealed at any time.
"On the face of it, it's a good idea," Salas said," but I also look at the reality of funding. Use of the service will increase as people learn about it."
Ponce said he noticed the living conditions of some in his district while he was campaigning. "I would love to help people, but we have to remember that we are losing $236,000 in copper revenue this year. As Edwards said, if we do it, where will we have to cut services."
Billings said the state is flush. "They will throw quite a beer party, but oil is down to $50 a barrel. While the state is flush now, there will be a budget deficit soon. I'm a risk taker with my own money, but not with the county's. I don't see how we can do it for a short time. It would be hard to take away the money once it is implemented."
Treasurer Steve Armendariz said the county would not have good data for at least four years. "We collect the money, we send it to the state, the state sends it back. It will be hard for (Financial Officer) Linda Vasquez and Manager Webb to calculate. There are some joint resolutions pending that might eliminate some taxes. I think we might be jumping the gun. Anyone 75 or older who is making $25,000 or less might pay no property tax. The disabled might pay no property tax. We won't know for a long time who will take advantage of the rebate. If you implement it and then take it away, it's a tax increase for those who were eligible. My recommendation is to wait on the Legislature to make statute. If we get hit with these memorials, we will lose a lot of revenue."
Turrieta agreed that he didn't think the county should take the budget hit.
Ponce said if it were implemented, he could "see us up here raising taxes to find the money to pay it. If we stopped it, we would be taking money back from them. I think we need to wait. Giving them the rebate and then raising their taxes would not help them."
"Our taxes have slightly increased over the past few years," Webb said, "but departments are still cutting budgets. I remind you of how volatile our revenue stream is. We lost $700,000 when Secure Rural Schools was not funded. Hard-working employees have had to cut. How do we pay for what we are statutorily obligated to pay? We had the $236,000 hit in copper revenue. We can't stop that bleeding. We rely on revenue we have no control over."
Edwards said: "The bottom line is two fundamental issues. We have a suffering population, and the county relies on unreliable sources of income. This ordinance is forcing us into this conversation. We are not taking advantage of programs in existence. One of the issues in the Mining District is how high the water utility bills are. The way to address this is the have it fully funded with New Mexico Unit Funds. We all acknowledge seniors are suffering."
Ponce asked if it would be possible to address after the legislative session.
Burgess said the state requires each county to address it and make a decision in January of odd-numbered years.
Ponce said: "Sometimes, the more we try to help, the more we hurt."
At the regular session the commissioner voted 4-1 to disapprove the ordinance, with Browne voting to approve.
More articles will follow.