[Editor's Note: This is the final of three articles on the Commission budget hearing on April 27, 2021.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

After presentations covered in two articles, which can be viewed here: https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/64646-grant-county-commission-met-in-budget-hearing-042721-part-1 and https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/64692-grant-county-commission-budget-hearing-042721-part-2 , County Manager Charlene Webb then addressed the Commissioners' budget.

She noted that the request from New Mexico State University for the Grant County Extension Service is for a 1.73 percent increase. "Something I included for discussion purposes and for you to keep in mind is that I have put in $75,000 for economic development. The EDA (Economic Development Administration) economic development grant we received is only for three years, so this is helping to build an amount for a full-time certified employee as an economic development specialist in the county. It will sustain the program once the grant is expended."

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne asked when the three years ends for the EDA grant. Webb replied that it ends in 2024. Browne also asked if this amount would continue each year to build up a reserve, to which Webb replied Yes. "Interesting idea," Browne said. "Thanks."

For the Manager's Department, Webb said she pretty much left everything the same. "I did ask for increases for all the department heads. We have a tremendous amount of knowledge and years of experience. So, I did request an increase. The HR position is in this year's funding," she replied to a question about the position.

Browne asked about contractual commitments. Webb said she believes it can be removed, because "I only have a year left on my contract. You've fulfilled the Bateman Act requirement."

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said: "So when we renew your contract, we would add it back on?"

Webb said counties across the state usually do one of three different versions, which include carrying it over, putting it in again, or not doing it at all.

Edwards said: "If we took it out of this item, we could spend it somewhere else and then next year, we would have to find money for it."

Browne didn't know if it was the proper time to ask a question, referring back to the Detention Center presentation.

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said: "Go ahead."

Browne said to Webb that she put in a pitch for increasing Detention Center salaries and asked if raises were in the budget.

Webb said: "It was not included in his request. Linda and I wanted to see where the board was coming from. I wanted you to be aware of the number of vacancies we have. I also wanted you to be able to see the survey that the Detention Center administrators' affiliate did. We're pretty low in starting salaries, and there is a lot of turnover. We've thought of a step-up plan similar to what we did for the sheriff's department. We've got to do something. We do bump them up a bit after the basic training and their probationary period."

Browne said in order to give feedback, "We would need to know the cost of that. I did some analysis and I agree that that the starting salary for officers is low, way outside usual starting salaries."

Webb said: "We may see another thing not included in his budget and that is the medical contract is up and has to go out to RFP per state procurement regulations. I anticipate seeing a substantial increase, based on the litigious environment corrections is in right now. Any time the county gets sued the medical provider gets sued as well. They are seeing large increases in their insurance and will pass it on to us. Based on our population, we have a lot of medical needs. They are not a healthy population at all. I am anticipating a higher number when the bids come in."

Ponce said: "I see the Detention Center. I don't know how the officers do it. You're doing the time with the inmates. I think we need do something to retain some of these officers. But in the back of mind, some will go in and find out it's simply not for them. I would like to see the numbers. Somehow, we need to start retaining some of our people."

Edwards said her question is related. "I'm wondering if there is some way while we are accounting for our costs, if there is a cost to turning people over. Say, they get 160 hours training before they get to the floor and only last six months, we've thrown that 160 hours of training out the window. It's the same for any department. We have to talk about the cost of retention versus the cost of loss."

Webb said: "We don't have a system that would take care of that. But we're all familiar with the tip of the iceberg above water. Turnover is what's under the water. Turnover is a significant part of what kills our budget."

Edwards agreed and asked if the county has any idea of how much the training costs.

Webb said: "We do the 160 hours in house with Sgt Galindo. And we continue to keep his training up to date."

Edwards noted there's shift work people have to do while the others are training. "Would Mike (Carillo Detention Center Administrator) have data on people starting the training and then stopping?"

Webb said some don't last longer than a day.

Edwards said the comment about doing time with them is so correct. "They're with them. All the other conversations we're having on drugs, addiction and mental health. The human and financial costs is mind-boggling."

Webb noted: "Corrections is killing us."

District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas asked the average cost per inmate. Webb said the last calculation was $95-$96 a day per inmate.

Salas called that a "money pit. Costs are going to continue to rise. The county will be functioning just to keep the jail open."

Webb agreed and said, "In reality that is the situation counties are in across the state of New Mexico. So many things are required by state statute. I wish there were a creative way to fix it, but I don't see a way to do it."

Browne noted a reduction in the average daily population and thought it was due to bail bond reform.

Webb said she thought the decrease was due to COVID, because the judicial system asked law enforcement only to issue citations, not to arrest the offenders. "And I don't think the bail bond reform fixed anything."

Browne said those who opposed the bail bond reform said it would be catch and release.

Webb said her opinion was the reform was exactly that and fixed nothing.

Ponce noted that even when the population goes down, the costs are still there.

Browne said there should be savings in food.

Webb said that is a fixed cost, but it does fluctuate with the daily population. "For medical, we pay a flat fee, no matter how many they see in a day, one or 10." She said when a person is convicted and will be going to state prison, the county still pays for them in the meantime. Those sentenced to more than 364 days go to state. Many are parole and probation violations. Counties filed suit and got a $7 million budget to pay for incarcerating state prisoners. "But it continues to be cut every year. This past year, I think we got $63,000 for housing state prisoners."

Ponce said when a person is sentenced, it is a slow process to get them transferred to the Department of Corrections.

Edwards summed it up: "It's a mess."

Salas said he thinks corrections costs will continue to increase.

Edwards said when it's catch and release, that puts stress on another part of the system. We are seeing them in our capacity to take care of people. The longer it goes on, the burden goes into some portion of the system."

Salas said: "We can't support seniors, but we have to pay for those who break the law."

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings asked how much of the budget is spent on the jail.

Webb said: "About a third, but I think we will be looking at more than now."

Edwards noted that for some counties, the jail is 60 percent of their budget.

Ponce said: "We still don't know what our insurances is going to be."

Webb said she reached out to the county's agent Rob Rydeski, and "he didn't think it would be more than about a 10 percent increase. The renewals are in January each year."

Financial Officer Linda Vasquez presented the IT department request. "We have budgeted for two fulltime positions, a director and a computer tech. I've also requested $80,000 in capital outlay to get some updated software for Encode. Right now, the treasurer does not necessarily use Encode, so we have to import his informtion in. It doesn't give us a real-time financial picture. If we can get the treasurer to use the Encode financial package, too, we can work together on these reports and it will save us time."

Browne said his question is about accounting philosophy. "We have a couple of large items in the IT department that correspond to other departments. I'm referring to the $148,500 in the current year's budget, which I think is for the Detention Center. It looks like APIC to me, and then $80,000 for what will benefit the treasurer's office, but I presume will also benefit you. Why do we put those under internet technology?"

Vasquez said these costs used to be in different accounts, but "we were unable to determine when and what the true cost of replacing servers was, as well as other contracts that address our software packages and renewals of our software, which was falling under the responsibility of the IT department, so that's where we put it. It helps us track when things need to be replaced or renewed."

Edwards said: "But that $148,000 is for the Detention Center. How will we account for these costs for the Detention Center?"

Webb said: "We are not focused on how much detention costs. It is a tracking mechanism to make sure we don't let things continue to fall through the cracks."

Edwards said she had no problem with that system, "but we still need to know we spent almost $150,000 for the Detention Center."

Webb said they would work on it. "What do you want to know?"

Browne said the commissioners need to know expenditures for the purpose of the budget. "I guess I don't see why you need to track it through the budgeting process."

Vasquez said it was her understanding that the IT department would be tracking all these needs. She noted that every piece of equipment has a tag indicating what department it belongs to. But IT will be monitoring when it needs replacing or updating."

Edwards asked: "What is the difference between Encode and Tyler?"

Vasquez said Tyler is the company and Encode is the software.

Browne asked about the maintenance department and the IT department. "There was some trouble this year and we took on a contract. If we are going to employ two people in the IT Department, is there some hope the costs with Spectrum will drop?"

Webb said if the county successfully gets an experienced director, who can take charge, and a good tech, "then we hope we can reduce our costs with Spectrum. We will still need someone for back up off site."

Salas asked what the salary for an IT director would be.

Webb said she is not going to say X number of dollars. "We don't know what we will get, but if the person is very experienced, it would be the same as other directors, around $73,000 to $74,000, but it may be more."

Edwards said she had one more comment about how the county keeps track of contracts. "I totally see the importance of the IT having a way to track the equipment and software, but it seems to me it shouldn't be part of the accounting process. I think it should be a separate spreadsheet or task list, similar to the way we do for the fleet." Browne kept feeding her words, such asset management and task list.

Edwards continued by saying it's important to be able to go to the Legislature with an accurate picture of costs for detention, for example.

She also began the commissioners' reports. "We've danced around it, but I think we need a plan for ongoing civil rights training, updating and accountability. Is it in the budget? And if it isn't, it should be. We need it for every employee to be able for the county to address the potential concerns of HB4. It should be consistent for every employee."

Webb said: "As counties, we are still trying to wrap our heads around it, and I wouldn't even know where to begin."

Edwards said she understood that "but I still think we need everyone in the county to have a basic course in civil rights."

Browne noted, interrupting, that there are two categories, state and federal.

Edwards asked about how the county budgets for FMLA (Family and Maternal Leave Act).

Webb said it is included in sick leave for employees.

Edwards asked if there were a way to track it, whether a soft cost or a hard cost, and whether it should be in the budget.

Vasquez said the department would come up with the hours. Webb noted again, it depends on the department budget. "Some years, we have a lot; sometimes not as much."

Edwards then advocated for a grant writer for the county "in the immediate future. There will be millions of dollars through the American Recovery Act and from the Biden administration. I think we need to take advantage of it. Good grant writing is a skill. There was the potential for a $20,000 grant from Economic Development Department for outdoor recreation, but I don't think we have the capacity right now. The Vital Core contract is up in December. Even if we're happy with the vendor we will still have to go out for bid, right?" To which she received a "Yes, ma'am."

She said the last thing she wanted to talk about were two articles she saw in the Washington Post about the Albuquerque Police Department and the challenges they have had since they "I don't know what you call it from the Department of Justice," Browne inserted, "consent decree" Edwards continued, "consent decree, thank you very much. In essence nothing has changed very much. We are facing, as a county, and our world around law enforcement, mental health issues, and all that, is in flux because of all of the things happening, like HB 4. I don't think we have the resources or capacity to address the underlying conditions that are causing these things. That's one thing, the other was an article, a 73-year-old woman with dementia, the video of how she was treated was truly horrifying. Where I'm headed is that we ask a lot from our law enforcement, way more than they are prepared to deal with. Our system is so bogged down with substance abuse and behavioral health, so that every piece is failing as of this moment. I don't have any answers, but I want us to be able to have a difficult conversation on how we're going to address this. Going forward, the cost of incarceration is going to go up, the cost of litigation is going to go up and the human cost to our citizens is going to go up. We have a lot of seniors in our community with memory issues and we have zero capacity to take care of them, except within families. It's difficult for them to continue to take of those who are violent or have no clue what they're doing. We need to address the issues. We need to have these difficult conversations in strategic and kind-hearted ways."

Billings had no commissioner's comment.

Browne noted that the budget conversation did not touch on the revenue side. "I appreciate the thoroughness of this discussion. However, $1.2 million shortfall should be a concern. It's half dependent on revenue projections and half on expenditure projections. I think your property tax estimate is close, but perhaps a bit conservative, about $400,000 too conservative, but it will still leave an $800,000 shortfall."

Salas said he has thought a lot about this, and he realizes that the shortfall is because of what is being asked for by department heads, but what is being asked for is "not outlandish. We need to look at the revenue side, because as we spend, if revenue stays flat, we can't sustain that very long. We have to be creative in how we do things. I talked to Linda about solid waste, which has not been increased in years. We need to address that."

He said that immediately those in law enforcement and at the hospital need to be gotten into civil rights training. "And even further, I think we need some sort of mental recourse for them, because they're humans. I think these sorts of things will proactively take care of what we may face. And another thing I wanted to say is that I wanted my concentration this year to be on raises, but it's not as simple as I thought."

He noted that the budget shows all the variables, with some employees making no more than a fast-food job, but they are carrying heavy responsibilities. "If they can go to a job that pays more, with less responsibility, they will jump. We have to be fair, but sustainable."

Ponce said he agreed with the need for civil rights training, but "we have to give support to our law enforcement every day. They go from a domestic violence case to an elderly person who had her hose stolen. Law enforcement personnel need our support and training, so they don't make mistakes, while we are being financially responsible to our taxpayers, for whom we have to continue to provide services. I'm wanting to get our employees to mid-range or above. The problem with our directors is that some have been here 20-30 years and they're making the same as one that's been here two years. I have a problem with directors making the same. I think they need to see more for their longevity."

He noted that the budget this year may take a bigger hit from the mine. "If not this year to get people to mid-range, then whenever we can and whatever we can do for our employees. For me, I don't think we need to spend as much on projects. The $5.2 million we're getting from one-time funding can help with projects."

Edwards ended the session by saying she had been remiss in not thanking the county staff for all the work done on the budget. "I appreciate this budget hearing."

The meeting adjourned.