Commission votes to increase budget for services

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Valencia County commissioners took steps last week during a budget workshop to try to grow the county's budget for the upcoming year.

When the five officials first sat down with county administrators and staff, they were looking at a budget for next fiscal year with a mere $87,000 surplus.

When skyrocketing insurance premiums wiped that out and pushed the budget into a hole, the frustration was obvious.

"We need to put together some numbers we can send to Santa Fe, numbers we are comfortable with," said Commissioner Mary Andersen. "When the new finance director comes in, we let him put them where they should be. There are questions throughout the budget and until we get a qualified person in here, we're playing blind man's bluff."

Commissioner Georgia Otero-Kirkham pointed out that the county can't submit a budget that isn't balanced.

And that's when newly hired County Manager Bruce Swingle made the comment that could put the county budget on a whole new track.

"We can send a budget to DFA that exceeds our funds," Swingle said.

Essentially, instead of submitting a budget based on the $13 to $14 million in revenue the county usually gets, it can send in a budget containing figures that exceed that revenue based on the services it needs to deliver.

"Our taxes don't increase because we didn't increase the budget," said Commissioner Ron Gentry. "If we send it in $2 to $3 million over, when tax rates come back, we've just raised taxes."

Andersen said that while appraised values of properties have gone up 10 percent in the last five years, the county's budget has remained flat.

And with that flat budget, there has been an increased demand for services from a growing county population, forcing the county to shift money from one priority to another, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"All we have to do is have the backbone to raise taxes and provide services," Gentry said.

Otero-Kirkham said her property taxes have been steadily increasing though.

Gentry said the state raises its share, but the county sees little of that increase. The majority of a county's revenue comes from property taxes collected throughout the year.

"If we sent (the budget) in over, the state will raise taxes to cover the increase in expenditures," Gentry said. "This commission, for 10 years, has not raised taxes. The raises that were done were by the state under yield control.

"If we want to be aggressive, be positive, we put the budget like we want to spend it and the state will adjust taxes accordingly to pay for this."

And the results of 10 years of no increases has put the county in a "hell of a mess," Andersen said. "We haven't given decent raises, there's been no proper maintenance. We've been too cautious."

Gentry said if the county's assessed value and expenditures were "on par," the state would have really no way to object to the increase.

"It's cheap to live here, but we have no services. It's up to the commission to be bold enough," he said. "It has to be justifiable. They will say, 'Valencia County's assessed value can handle this.' If some place like Mora County tried it, they would say, 'Mora County isn't worth this much.'"

Swingle said other counties are growing their budgets just the way the commissioners were proposing.

Andersen said Sandoval County had done the same thing, enabling it to come up with $25 million to support the Rail Runner.

"The appraised value in this county is in the billions and here we sit with (county employees) making $8.50 an hour, half the number of deputies we need," Andersen said. "We are not serving the people of the county."

If the commissioners do approve a "growth" budget and the state agrees with their justifications for the expenditures, the tax increase would be reflected in the assessments going out in January of next year, and payment wouldn't be due until 2014.

"We need to be as frugal as we can, where we can, but we have to plug in what we need," Andersen said. "Salaries — we have to do something. Fixing the roof. Whether we stay here or not, we need to make sure people don't drown."

Andersen is referring to the roof of the current county administration building. Right now, it is estimated it will cost $250,000 just to repair the roof and keep it from leaking.

Gentry said he would also like to see pay move towards parity, suggesting a $1 an hour raise, across the board for the county's "rank and file" employees.

Commissioner Lawrence Romero said an increase in property taxes and employee raises might be a "hard sell."

Swingle said pay rates aren't keeping up with cost of living increases, such as insurance premiums.

If the decision was made to increase salaries and cut services, Commission Chairman Donald Holliday said the public would be "screaming murder."

Gentry countered that, saying if the county is going to increase taxes, services were going to be improved.

"Because we've added things all over, from administration to equipment," he said.

Holliday said if that was the case, people usually don't mind paying more if they are getting something in the end.

"People are going to grumble, get upset," he said. "But if we can show them a return. We have to give them something."

When it was a matter of services, Gentry said people don't mind paying.

"We can't live with the attitude that the road construction crew for Valencia County is a pothole crew," he said.

Holliday nodded in agreement, saying the county has spent enough years seeking a "bigger Band-Aid."

There might be discontent for a few months, Gentry said, but then the commission would have four to eight years to "really have the budget grow. Then it's automatic and the services are there. We have to make it a habit to show people we are doing something for their taxes. Anyplace in my district, I can point to where it's better than it was five years ago by project."

The commissioners agreed to have the county finance department and Swingle adjust the budget to meet the demand for services, and see what happens when it's submitted to the state.

"It's time to bite the bullet," Andersen said.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.