[Editor's Note: Because of the almost three-hour-length of the meeting, the information will be broken down into several parts. This is part one.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

The Grant County commissioners met on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, for a budget hearing. They would hear from department heads and elected officials during the session.

County Financial Officer Linda Vasquez began the meeting by pointing out a change. "We had $130,000 in the commissioners' budget for the parcel mapping project, but it was also in the assessor's budget, so we removed it from the commissioners' item." She also noted that links in the budget document didn't quite work as expected, so there was a $17,000 difference in the adjusted balance.

The overall budget taking into account all the requests from departments brought the overall total to a negative $1.247 million budget.

"This budget is based on all the requests from the departments and today you will have the opportunity to hear from all of them to explain their requests," Vasquez said. "I would like the commissioners to give their input to what they would like to see in the budget. We will then go back in and determine what is a budget that is acceptable to the DFA (Department of Finance and Administration) and that we are following the 3/12th reserve for the general fund and the 1/12th for the road fund. This gives you commissioners the chance to see what you want to see changed on the revenue as well as the expenses. I have heard you express your desire to see a raise for employees. Then we can also discuss whether there are needs to raise revenue. When we talk about wage increases, we have to make sure we can continue to support them on the revenue side."

She emphasized that this is the preliminary budget, with the final budget to be submitted on July 1, after the county has final numbers for this fiscal year.

The first to present was Facility Maintenance and Grounds Superintendent Jason Lockett. He said the requests submitted were basically a flat budget except for a slight increase for some employees and some capital improvement projects.

"I rated each request from a 1 to a 5, with 1 being the highest priority," Lockett said. "I am requesting two new vehicles, a truck and a transit van, fully equipped for $88,000, rated as a 3. The request for $54,000 for new flooring in the administration center is rated as a 2. A courthouse main sewer line renovation for $47,000 is a high priority as a 1. Instead of digging it up and messing up our nice lawn, there is a new procedure that can line the cast iron with a coating to make it like PVC. We put cameras down the lines and we're a good candidate, and it would be cheaper to do it this way. The total I have for all our capital outlay requests is $307,275."

District 5 Commissioner Harry Brown questioned the priority of the flooring. Lockett said the carpet in the Commissioners' Chambers has been installed for more than 10 years and is starting to unravel in places. "For the Sheriff's Office, which gets a lot of traffic, we're looking at a linear vinyl tile. For this room, we would want to stay with carpet to cut the echo. Otherwise, it might be hard to hear in this room. The tile in the sheriff's office is a higher priority than this room."

Other projects included $42,000 for the North Hurley lift station renovation and one pump replacement, on a scale of 1, for high priority. Detention Center showers repainting for $20,300 is on a scale of 1. $11,975 for Detention Center metal entryway is a No 3. "The longer we wait the more rust that comes through making it harder to treat," Lockett said. "Also, for the Detention Center is $12,000 for door slider repair carriages on stuff that has had neglected maintenance, on a scale of 1. That will get the parts replaced on three doors. We are working with APIC and it is one of only a few that work on detention centers."

Next on the list was $20,000 for asbestos abatement at the old jail, on a scale of 5. "We're using Brownfields funding right now, but I put the item on there to see where we can get the money. It's mostly old tiles and the mastic, with about 10-15 square feet of roof that has asbestos. We also put $12,000 on for asbestos abatement at the Gila Community Center. That is on a scale of 2. The building needs a lot of work. Most of the asbestos is in the popcorn ceiling. If there is tile under the carpet, it will likely be asbestos, too."

Browne asked if the budget shouldn't just be looking at operational funds.

Vasquez said: "If we can find other funding, we'll take care of it in the preliminary budget. If we don't know about it until later, we can take care of it with the final budget."

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards asked if there were a way to cover asbestos to make it safer.

Lockett said: "Yes, but when it starts to deteriorate and becomes friable, it's a danger. This is a starting point to get asbestos removed from the community center. It's an old building. Once the fire marshal comes out, he may just shut it down. It has asbestos, and it is not ADA accessible."

To a question about replacing it with a metal building, Lockett said he can get a quote for only that day, so it's impossible to estimate how much it might cost to replace the center.

Edwards said, as a result of her having run many food pantries out of the building, "I would be the first to recommend replacement."

Lockett said whether for demolition or renovation, the asbestos would still have to be removed, with no difference in cost.

County Manager Charlene Webb said: "I will cut to the chase. The building has no heat; it has asbestos; it's not safe for people to be in there."

Edwards said she would like to see a replacement cost.

Webb said this year's capital outlay provides $135,000, which might be enough to finish the playground. "We can leave the building on the ICIP for future potential replacement. The higher priority was fixing the playground."

Lockett said it is a suspended building, like old World War II bunker buildings, not on a slab and has a lot of wood under it, but "we haven't dug that deep into it."

Webb said only a few organizations are using it right now, because it's very small —AA, the Girl Scouts and another addiction recovery group, "but there are a lot of requests to use it, because groups aren't allowed to use the Senior Center or the fire station anymore. Our concern is code, because of the liability it exposes us to."

District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas noted that if the building were replaced with a metal one, "the cost of concrete has gone sky high right now. We should look at different options."

Edwards asked if space at the Fairgrounds could be repurposed for community usage. "And what is the cost of demolishing and getting rid of the community center building?"

Lockett noted that there weren't any extra buildings at the Fairgrounds. "If you took a corner out of the exhibit hall, it would defeat the wide openness of the building. It's now also used as a voting center, as well as the exhibit building."

Edwards also said that it is pretty important for a community center to have a kitchen, which would greatly add cost. "I firmly agree that an area like Gila needs a community center. I would like to explore every avenue before spending the $12,000 on asbestos abatement, if the building is not really usable."

For the next request, Marisa Castrillo, county clerk, said she would like to bring the recording specialist up to a mid-point level. "He's very experienced. It would be an increase of 77 cents an hour. I can justify that he should be at the top of the medium level. The step plan doesn't work for our office. The titles don't go with our office. 77 cents would get him to the bottom of the middle. I think it would be $1,616.80 to add to my budget."

Browne said he heard the same concern about the classification study not matching the treasurer's office. "What can we do if two department feel it doesn't fit the step plan?"

Webb said: "I think there was poor communications around the titles. We had all these positions with random names., but similar duties. We looked at other counties. What we attempted to do was create position names that would cover different positions, such as county service specialist, county service senior specialist. It's not truly a step plan, but it gives you flexibility to place employees where they belong in the scale. I think Rob belongs at a higher level with all of his years of experience. The job descriptions should be part of the positions."

Browne said it made sense to him, and perhaps there needed to be a meeting of the minds with department heads to understand it.

District 1 Commissioner and Chairman Chris Ponce agreed, but "I want to get people up to the middle range. I don't want to wait six months to get another study done. We have a plan, and I would rather we follow it."

Edwards said she would like to see where the recording specialist should actually be in the plan and to see what the preferred position costs would be on an annual basis.

Castrillo said she was also requested small increases for Bureau of Elections employees, but "not exceeding what else is there."

Ponce asked about overtime. "Can your overtime budget handle all the extra hours?"

Castrillo said they do have overtime. "During election time, it can be 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for months, and now we do have elections every year."

Browne asked about what he was looking at with the Bureau of Elections going from $92,500 to $218,000.

Castrillo said the department saved money with fewer voting locations. "When we redo the resolution, I would recommend the fewer voting locations. With new elections, our poll workers will increase with new mandates."

Webb said the reason the election expenses this year were lower and not recorded in the budget was because they were paid for with CARES Act funding, so the $218,000 is the correct amount.

Edwards asked how taking on the Silver City election would change things.

Castrillo said that the county already does other municipal elections, "so we would just add them to the ballot without appreciably increasing any costs. The town will actually save, because they won't pay anything, and we just put them on the ballot."

Edwards said she was glad to see the $5,000 for training. Castrillo said she definitely plans to use it to get everyone in the office trained and certified.

Assessor Raul Turrieta reported next. "We have a flat budget. We're OK with the budget and with the reappraisal. I would like to see us using the employee study for our positions. I have no request at this time for bringing the assessors up in pay. The valuation this year will remain pretty much the same. The cost of bringing appraisers up, most are under $15 an hour, I would like to see them come higher, but they get stipends as they get to be certified appraisers. I'll get you the numbers of bringing them up to $15."

Treasurer Patrick Cohn was next. "I have only two proposals. I'm seeking replacement of the '08 Journey. I've had maintenance look at it. It's old. Our staff doesn't trust it for taking it out of town for training. It's OK for in town, but it's not reliable going out of town. I did put in an ICIP request for state funding. The second item is an increase in the printing and publishing. Looking at other counties, I see that they print and publish the reports of collections out to the public. I want to let the taxpayers know what we've collected and where the money is going. I might seek funding for printing other forms for future use."

Browne asked how the decision to purchase another vehicle happens.

Cohn said he talked to the manager's office on how to do that. "I got three bids with the state purchasing department."

Browne said he thinks he's too late, but "I've said before and I'll say again, I think the best investment is in electric or hybrid vehicles. The maintenance is almost nothing. It's amazing how much you save. The cost of fuel is considerably lower."

Cohn noted that Solid Waste also uses the vehicle. And if another department wanted to borrow the vehicle, he would be willing to allow that.

Edwards said she wanted to support Browne on the electric or hybrid vehicles. "I would like to see a county fleet of fuel-efficient vehicles."

Salas said he believes the county needs a fleet of vehicles that any employee could us. "But rather than all electric, I think hybrid is the best option at this time."

Cohn noted that when he looked at the state pricing and purchasing program, the choice was limited.

Browne said if the county had an electric vehicle policy, it could provide specs for the vehicles it wants.

Ponce said: "Before we get to policies, let's not put the cart before the horse. My nephew had an electric vehicle and when he moved to Silver City, he had to get rid of it because he had no place to charge it."

Edwards said if the county was looking at a fleet, hybrids might be the best choice. "After having drivien Priuses for the past 15 years, now I'm driving a pickup for another reason. Talk about sticker shock when I have to fill up. With the Prius, I could drive to Albuquerque and back without filling up. We really need to look at electric or hybrid."

Browne said he agreed with the chairman, but "in the future, we will need the capability to charge the vehicles right here at the building. "

The department requests will continue in the next article(s).

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