Commission to consider GRT increase for jail

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Starting in July, Valencia County residents will probably see a small increase in the gross receipts taxes they pay on purchases made in the unincorporated areas of the county.

After months of discussion, county commissioners are preparing to bring back a gross receipts tax to support the operations of the county jail.

At the Dec. 11 commission meeting, commissioners voted 4-0 to move ahead with publication of the GRT ordinance. Commissioner Alicia Aguilar was not at that meeting.

According to the legal notice published in the News-Bulletin on Dec. 19, the ordinance will go before the commissioners for a public hearing on Jan. 8 and again on Jan. 15 for a final decision. Both meetings are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and will be held at the commission chambers, 444 Luna Ave. in Los Lunas.

"We have talked several times about the very urgent need to reinstate the correctional GRT," said Commissioner Mary Andersen. "We are losing $1.5 million a year that was dedicated to the operations of the facility."

The county jail's annual budget is more than $3 million and comes directly from the county's general fund.

"That is money that should be going into equipment for roads, road improvements and salaries for employees; our employees haven't had a raise in two years," Andersen said. "We need this. If we don't, we won't be able to balance the budget and we're looking at staff cuts. We have a very small pot of money we have to spread a long, long way."

Andersen said her calculations showed the county spends $21,000 per year on each bed in the jail, which translates to "each inmate per day, costing you taxpayers $57 a day. And for the people who obey law, we have $170 for each person a year."

The jail GRT being proposed is one-eighth of a cent, and would add eight cents to every $100 spent in the unincorporated part of the county that is subject to GRT. Food and most prescription medications are not subject to GRT.

Commission Chairman Charles Eaton, who seconded Andersen's motion to publish the ordinance, said in 2010, the county paid out more than $1.3 million to house inmates outside Valencia County.

"That's a tremendous amount of money we're paying that people need to know about," Eaton said. "When we deplete the general fund, when people are calling me to talk about homes being burglarized, property crimes, asking for additional officers and I'm telling them can't provide that, this general fund is why. We are depleting the general fund to fund the jail."

Eaton emphasized the GRT would not have any effect on property taxes, only on goods and services purchased.

Andersen said the commission was not looking at the GRT to solve all the county's financial problems.

"Because it won't. We asking assessor to look at the ways her office is assessing property make sure it's being done exactly right," she said. "Our people, our staff are probably taking home less money this year than last and that is grossly unfair. We need to put this county on a progressive path, a better economic path."

Valencia County resident Norbert Schueller has been a consistent, vocal proponent of the jail GRT.

During his comments to the commission on the issue, he noted that a GRT is a regressive tax, in that it affects "the poor more directly than those who are more economically advantaged. It is perhaps ironic that I am in the category of those who are economically disadvantaged … yet, buy the same token, I am also advocating the enactment … My only personal agenda, if it can be called that, is for the financial well being and stability of the government of Valencia County."

The path to the GRT is a quick one. If the ordinance is approved on Jan. 15, then the public has 60 days to respond by gathering signatures on a petition to take the question to a public vote.

The petition needs to have signatures of 5 percent of the voters registered as of the last general election; that is 2,175 signatures. If the petition has the required number of qualified signatures, the county must hold a special election on the GRT.

This is the same scenario that took place in 2009 when the previous jail GRT expired. It was enacted in 1999 to pay back the debt incurred in the construction of the existing detention center.

When the GRT ended, the commission attempted to continue its collect via the ordinance process. However, members of the public objected, saying they wanted to vote on the tax.

The requisite number of signatures were gathered, a special election was scheduled and the tax failed, 6,495 to 3,353.

The tax will take effect on July 1 if approved by the commission or by a petition-driven public vote.

Valencia County Detention Center Warden Joe Chavez said the GRT is greatly needed.

"The detention facility takes money from the general fund that we could use for other services for the community," Chavez said. "The GRT sustains the jail in a big way versus running out of money and having to tap into the general fund.

"The jail has to run, we can't stop taking inmates. We're going to end up in the red and that's no way to run government."

Chavez said as the person in charge of the jail and as a taxpayer in the county, he saw the GRT as a big plus.

"The community has to see, we going to do with the loss other services to keep the jail up and going," he said. "The (inmates) are part of our community and we have to treat them well.

"People are here for parking tickets, domestic violence, DWI, all the way up to murder. And for the most part, they are going to get out and be a part of the community again."

The expenses at the jail are going nowhere but up, Chavez said. Each year, utilities for the 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year facility increase, every month, the county spends close to $40,000 housing inmates in Cibola County, money that doesn't come back to the county, Chavez said, and the inmate health care contract will nearly triple in cost for next year.

The $718,709 contract was awarded to Correctional Healthcare Companies, out of Greenwood Village, Colo. The previous contract was around $240,000.

The new contract is subject to the availability of funds: If the commissioners determine that funds are not available, the contract is terminated immediately.

The contract is for a comprehensive inmate health care program, including a full time site manager, medical director, nurse practitioner, a licensed practical nurse, a mental health clinician and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The providers who are on call are available 24/7.

Chavez said he felt the professional staff at the county was very conscientious about money being spent the right way.

"No one wants their signature on something questionable," he said.

Chavez said with the new Tyler software system, there were several checks and balances in place when it came to spending funds.

"It holds people accountable for spending. And we good checks and balances in the staff too with Nick (Telles) in finance and Mike (Vinyard) in procurement. They will absolutely make sure this money is spent for the inmates' benefit, not the staff."


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