[Editor's Note: This is part 7 and the final article of a series of articles on the Grant County Commission meetings July 6 and 8, 2021.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
After two presentations and county reports at the work session on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, which can be read at https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66082-grant-county-commission-hears-a-presentation-on-bataan-memorial-design-070621, https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66108-grant-county-commissioners-hear-proposal-for-narcotic-canine-detection-070621-part-2, https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66134-grant-county-commission-hears-county-reports-at-work-session-070621-and-regular-meeting-070821-part-3, https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66135-grant-county-commission-hears-grmc-monthly-update-at-regular-meeting-070821-part-4, https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66173-grant-county-commission-reviews-and-takes-action-on-the-bataan-memorial-at-meetings-070621-and-070821-part-5, and https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/66192-grant-county-commission-reviews-and-takes-action-on-regular-meeting-agenda-items-at-meetings-070621-and-070821-part-6, the regular meeting agenda was reviewed and acted upon in the regular meeting on July 8, 2021. This article continues the review and action portions of the meetings.
The next item under agreements was one between the county and the New Mexico Public Education Department for $41,000 to pay for county interns. County Manager Charlene Webb said that the agreement had not allowed a lot of time for turnaround, so "I'm asking for your approval for my signature. You've seen the interns around the building, and we have one, Brye Baptiste, with us today sitting here learning about County Commission meetings. This has been beneficial for the kids, as well as for us to learn about their weaknesses and how we can help them grow and develop. It's been a great program."
Commissioners approved the agreement at the regular meeting.
The following item was a cooperative agreement between the New Mexico Tourism Department and the county for co-op dollars. "The Tourism Department almost doubles our investment of lodgers' tax dollars," Webb said. "We put in a little over $20,000, and we get about $41,000 in benefit. This is the work the group does with Sunny 505 on advertising. We do this every year."
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said: "A long time ago, we had a discussion about SkyWest doing this. My recollection is the reason we do it this way is to get the cooperative dollars with Tourism."
Webb said at the time, it was about finishing out the pot of money for 2021. "This is for fiscal year 2022. That's how it is working. Yes, they are working with Sunny 505, but I think Randy (Hernandez, procurement officer) is working with Becky (O'Connor of the Lodgers' Tax Advisory Committee) on an RFP."
District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said he thought "we were going to have a discussion, which I don't think we did. Am I talking about two different things?"
Edwards said the two things wouldn't align. "This is already an existing cooperative agreement."
Webb said the county would get the money either way and would make its own decision on who to contract with. "That's the reason for the RFP."
Edwards said this approval is for the existing agreement. "They just come at different times," to which Webb said: "Yes."
Hernandez said the contract with Sunny 505 is through August or September, so within the next week or so, "I will be releasing an RFP for marketing services. At that time, we will determine who is best qualified to provide those services. They will be the county contractor, who will work with that Tourism grant."
Edwards confirmed this approval is for the money, and the RFP is for the contractor. Webb apologized for not explaining it well.
Commissioners, at the regular meeting, approved the cooperative dollars for marketing.
Under resolutions, three items addressed cooperative agreements between Grant County and the NM Department of Transportation for improvement of roads. The first was for Project CAP (county arterial project) for patching roadways, laying single penetration chipseal, with drainage, shoulder improvements and striping on a list of roads for a total of $199,605, of which $149,704 comes from NM DOT and the county match is $49,901; the second for Project School Bus for bus routes with the same procedures for $94,781, of which the county match is $23,695; and the third for Project Co-op for installation of low water crossing with footing and drainage and shoulder improvements to Whitewater Road, Agua Blanca Road and Little Walnut Road, at a total cost of $90,728, of which the county match is $22,682. Webb said the county match would come from in-kind use of county equipment.
Commissioners approved the three cooperative agreements at the regular meeting.
At the work session, Webb addressed the next item, which was a notice of intent to consider an ordinance adopting a county local option gross receipts tax of one-eighth of one percent. Webb said the increment could go into the General Fund. "We would hold a public hearing in August and if approved, it would go into effect in January 2022, with first receipts being received in March. It will bring about $601,000 to the county budget."
Webb said the August meeting would meet the statutory requirements for 30 days' notice. "If we don't do it now, we will lose the effect for this fiscal year."
District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas asked if the revenue was earmarked or just needed.
Webb said the preliminary budget as approved, "we were able to get it to balance without this revenue. However, in order for us to sustain any consideration for employees, we will need this. I wrote the ordinance to be very generalized. I suggest you leave it that way, so it can be used where needed, and so we don't have to amend it in the future. The budget process is where you choose its purpose, so I would recommend you not specialize it at this point. There was an overhaul of the tax code in 2019. The reform de-earmarked a lot of the GRT increments that were so specific that no one could ever use them. There were like 27 different increments. They were overhauled so that counties could use more of the GRTs."
Edwards noted that the county does not have a lot of sources of revenue and it's why "we talk about a flat budget. If we don't specify it in the ordinance, we can specify it in the budget? Would we do a budget amendment once this passes, because it would give us about $250,000 to $300,000 more this budget year?"
Finance Officer Linda Vasquez said if the resolution were to pass, she could make changes to the final budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year and add in the additional revenue. "And you would tell me what you want to do with it. In this budget, we eliminated a lot of things departments wanted. One thing was employee increases. I'm today going to finalize the quarter ending June 30. By the end of this week, I will be working on the final budget."
Ponce noted that anytime the commission looks at an increase in salaries, "we have to remember we lost about $200,000 in copper tax. In reality, this would even up the playing field for that loss. It's hard to do, but we still have to provide services. Our county employees deserve increases. I know that would be recurring expenses. The $600,000 sounds like a lot, but it's not. There are only certain ways we can bring in money. I see it as more of a stabilization."
Webb said the county always has to prioritize its needs. "When I say projects, I mean that we are taking care of our needs. It's another revenue source to have in your budget. I know it's difficult to ask for more money from your constituents, but if we don't have roads and infrastructure, we can't do economic development. It's to be able also to leverage other revenue sources."
Ponce said it always hurts him to hear how much the county spends on the jail. "I'm good with our not tying down a specific use."
District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne, who was on vacation and attending by telephone, said he was curious to know what percentage of GRT comes from residents and how much from visitors.
Webb said she didn't believe she could produce that data, "although we could break it down by education, mining, health care, etc."
Browne said his guess was that a good survey could provide a first cut of information.
Webb said she would send the link to the commissioners where they can read the data on the Taxation and Revenue Department website.
At the regular meeting, Ponce made a motion to disapprove the notice of intent. Salas seconded it.
Salas said the commissioners need to take deep consideration of any additional tax. "I want to study other options on how our finances are right now, other sources of income. I want to make a call to our state rep and our state senator and see if there is any possibility of tapping into the state resource tax that they get. Going deeper into this subject, I found out that they get resource taxes from the mines or any place else that takes resources from, you know, our county. And those are done monthly, in present day taxes, and what they get is far more than what we get. And that's been forever. I want to approach our government bodies and go to Santa Fe to see about the possibility of our taking in some of that money. I want to see our how PILT (payment in lieu of taxes for untaxed federal land). Or do we have any other income that would necessitate us not adding any tax. It hurts to have to pay it. I belong to the Bayard area and their tax is much higher, but I certainly don't like writing that check."
Ponce said he had asked this resolution to be put on the agenda. "I see where we need money, and we need to make up for the money somehow and to see what we're doing. What it does, is it creates a lot of discussion. That's the beauty of this, and it creates discussion, not only among the commissioners, but with our constituents. I had to really sit back and think about this. Hearing about our business costs going up, businesses struggling, Covid. We're still recovering from Covid. Our lower income people are listening to this. When we start listening to people and hearing the discussion, I think for me, this is not the time. Maybe down the road. Look at it a little more; see what our budget is going to do at the meeting at the end of the month. And then from there, we can take it a step at a time. I think it's best to let it sit and bring it back down the road."
District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said he, too, had some concerns and was relieved to hear a motion to table. "I think my constituents mostly oppose a tax increase, just when they hear the word. I think without more study, they will see this as a blank check. We need to look where we can cut and pull back a little bit where we can. I do believe we need to look at what Mr. Salas has championed that the employees receive an increase in wages. I just gave a valued employee an increase yesterday. I think we need to pay them what they deserve. It will be hard. It will take a deep dive into the budget, where we can save and spend less and then have the money to do that. I think we can look at this gross receipts tax increase in the future, but I think my constituents expect me to look at ways to cut before we look at ways to increase their taxes. I'm concerned about seniors on fixed incomes. For some of us, it may seem like a miniscule amount of money on what we spend, but some people I know, what's a little bit of money to me is a lot to them. It's an addition to what they are already paying. Our businesses are trying to get back on their feet from Covid. Some it will take them a decade."
Ponce clarified that the motion was to disapprove not to table.
Edwards asked Salas about the resource tax.
"Say the mines, they are pulling resources from our land," Salas said. "They pay monthly a tax to the state. Now where it goes and what it does, I don't know. But I want to find out about that, because we don't get any of it back."
Ponce said it goes to the state general fund, but he doesn't know what it's spent on.
Webb asked: "So they pay a tax on the resources they pull out of the ground?"
Ponce said that is what he understands.
"It's news to me," Webb said.
Salas said he wondered what other hidden taxes "are out there that we don't know about."
Webb noted that PILT came in $280,000 higher this year, in answer to an earlier question by Salas. "That has pretty much washed the lost copper revenue. We expect to lose about $300,000 of copper tax next year, but if we get $280,000 more of PILT that will wash."
Salas asked: "Do you see the PILT as stabilized?"
Webb said she has seen it go both ways. "We've gotten more some years and less other years. Some years, it isn't funded, until special sessions get it funded. So, I can't say it has stabilized. It's been fairly stable in the past six years. We have to rely on it and put it in the budget, but unfortunately it varies."
Salas asked what this year's budgeted amount was. Webb said about $2 million.
Edwards said her comment is related, but not directly. "I agree that it's important to have conversations, but what I want to be part of our conversations going forward is some sort of policy for COLA (cost of living adjustment) for our employees. What we do often is we talk about wanting to give increase, but we're all over the map. And partly it's because we have no control over revenue, but I always feel bad, because it feels like we're holding out a lollipop and taking it back. And so, I sort of want to say out loud, I want to see some policy on cost-of-living increases, with the employees being part of the conversation on how we're going to fund the business of the county going forward."
Salas said he whole-heartedly agreed. "If we figure out a stable formula for COLA, depending on what we determine, what if we don't have that money in the budget? That's why I was making enquiries on our savings and our investments. If we are $200,000 short that year, can we pull that from what we're saving for a rainy day? If we don't have enough, then it's raining, so that's why I'm thinking about a policy telling people they will get a raise on X."
Edward thinks that part of the discussion on creating a policy and "on if we're going to do that. We have to be clear that any raises are a recurring expense, and how will the COLA impact the benefits? For the lowest-paid employee, their benefits are about $30,000. So, there are a whole bunch of different factors."
Edwards asked why it was disapproved rather than being tabled. "I don't want it to fall off our radar."
Ponce said, if it is tabled, it would keep showing up on the agenda, but disapproved, it can be brought back at any time. "I almost forgot my question. If this were to go forward, does it have to be locked in for 20 years?"
Webb said: "No."
Salas said it brought back the need for a spreadsheet or a list of pending projects, so it can be reviewed at every meeting.
The motion to disapprove the notice of intent was approved at the regular meeting.
The next item in the work session review of the agenda was the consideration of the SunZia community benefit agreement. Edwards noted that it was brought up several years ago, and Webb replied that since she has been at the county, "we have supported it."
Edwards asked if the county's Scout Energy Great Divide Wind project would be able to utilize the line.
"Not this one," Webb said. "The transmitted energy has already been sold. The Scout Energy line will have to go under this line, so it is possible that the second SunZia transmission line might be able to utilize the power created by the Great Divide project."
Webb noted that things are ready to happen. In response to a question about environmental studies, she said: "I assure you they have done their due diligence."
Strand, who attended the regular meeting, said basically BLM (Bureau of Land Management) is in the driver's seat. "They do all the studies on every square foot of the line. The scoping meeting was to address some changes to the route, but most are in the northern part of the state. We've been at this for 12 years. Grant County did do a resolution in support of the original line, but not on the new line, which includes a couple of alterations in southwest New Mexico. U. S. Fish and Wildlife and Sierra Club and all these people weigh in. The most difficult is crossing an area like the Bosque and an aerial bird route over the Rio Grande. All these things enter into the studies and they try to find the best route to minimize the effects. There were no changes in Grant County, two in Luna County, one related to the Macho Springs Wind Farm. Another was a private landowner, who wanted the line on his property. One change in Hidalgo was a rancher, who didn't want it on his property, so it was moved to public land."
The resolution was approved at the regular meeting.
As the Grant County Health Care Claims Board, at the regular meeting, commissioners approved the claims of $3,216.85, with about $6,000 having been disallowed.
In commissioner reports at the work session, Ponce said that now that people can attend the meetings, the county will be doing away with the option to give public input over Zoom. He also requested that the July 20 work session be kept light, so the commissioners have more time to discuss how to spend the American Rescue Plan funding of about $5 million. "We will need a special meeting for the budget."
Webb said the work session on July 20, 2021, could be turned into a special meeting for the budget and also have discussion on the ARP spending. "If we have troubles with the budget, we will still have time after that for another special meeting for the budget."
At the regular meeting, during commissioner reports, Browne had none. Billings noted that it was Webb's last regular meeting. "I want to wish her the very best. I think this commission will have a tremendous challenge in front of us without her being here."
Salas said he wanted to echo the sentiment. "You, Charlene, kept us compliant. You kept the state out of our pockets. When we talk about revenue sources, we want to be active in renewable resources."
Edwards said she wanted to reiterate what had been said. "I also appreciate the amount of time and work that Don Turner and his group have put into the Bataan Memorial to remember those who suffered in it. I also want to thank (architect) Mark Richard, Charlene Webb and
(Planning and Community Development Director Priscilla Shoup for their work on the memorial. I think it's important to remember history through this type of memorial, so we don't repeat it. I hope it will bring people from all over and that we will meet with Donnie and his group to make sure we are effectively telling the story and remembering those folks."
"I've been asked many questions about why Charlene is leaving," Edwards continued. "There have been rumors that Charlene was offered opportunities to resign over the being fired as a result of a recent internal investigation. I can tell you that the investigation did not find legal evidence to support the accusations that were made against Ms. Webb. I can also state unequivocally that the board of commissioners did not ask her to resign. That said, I do think the board has responsibility to itself and to the public to deeply examine our role in Ms. Webb leaving Grant County. Anyone who pays attention to what the commission is doing knows that we talk a lot about county employees, how important it is to support our home-grown employees, how much staff is paid, salary mid-points, alignment with the salary study that was done, whether we are offering enough professional development opportunities, how often evaluations are being done, if the evaluations are being used to develop and encourage growth in the workplace and more. However, the reality is, outside the actual budgeting process that determines how the county is going to fund salaries, the commission is responsible for encouraging, supporting, compensating and evaluating only one employee—the county manager. It is my personal belief that we have not fulfilled that responsibility. In the four-and-a-half years I've been a commissioner, we have publicly and consistently over-promised and under-delivered on our responsibility to support, compensate, evaluate and develop our county manager. We can't change the past, but we can learn from it and commit to doing better in the future. When I ran for commissioner, I had never held public office, nor did I know anything about being a commissioner or running a county. I met with Charlene a couple of times prior to my being elected, and once I was sworn in, I requested that we meet weekly so that I could learn how to do my job and to be current and know what was happening in the county. She graciously agreed to that, despite how busy she is, and unless there was a scheduling conflict, we have met weekly since then. What I have learned over that time is there can't be many jobs out there that would be as fulfilling, while being thankless and difficult at the same time as being a county manager. Imagine balancing the priorities of five elected officials, all with different ideas and opinions, meeting the increasing needs of 21,000 county residents, who also have different ideas, priorities and opinions, managing an $11 million budget with revenues that are mostly outside your control, and being responsible for a staff of nearly 200 employees. I have a deep and abiding respect for the depth and breadth of what Charlene knows about county and state government and what she has accomplished in the time she has been Grant County manager. From audit awards to significant avenues of economic revitalization to reframing community thinking around detention, behavioral and mental health and substance disorders, Charlene, her staff, and her community partners have accomplished a significant amount of transformative work on behalf of the residents of Grant County. Thank you, Charlene, on behalf of the residents of your home county, Grant County. Best of luck in Sierra County, and I agree we are going to have a monumental challenge in front of us to replace you. Thank you."
Ponce said Webb had taught him a lot. "I do appreciate what you've done. I will save my comments until July 20."
The commissioners went into executive session, and when they came out a couple of hours later, a motion was made and seconded in open session to retain a third-party attorney on the pending or threatened litigation by Silver City Police Department Patrol Officer Kyle Spurgeon v. the Board of County Commissioners of Grant County, Detention Center Director Michael Carillo, Deputy Administrator Joseph Andazola, Lt. Michael Bonenfant, Detention Officer Philip Ice and Health Services Administrator Patricia Castillo. The motion was approved.
County Attorney Brad Springer reminded Ponce to put on record that items that were on the agenda were the only items discussed in executive session, and no action was taken in the executive session. Ponce did so.
The meeting adjourned.