Commission shoots down jail GRT

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The failure of a gross receipts tax to prop up the budget for the Valencia County Detention Center is being called "an absolute disaster for the county," by one commissioner.

Valencia County Commissioner Mary Andersen said the brunt of the financial burden would fall to county employees, who have not seen a pay increase for at least three years.

"Their take-home salaries have gone down every year due to increases in medical costs, unions are knocking at our door and they're not very happy because we haven't gotten money for their people and there's no way to do it," Andersen said.

She said the commission will have to consider the very real possibility of layoffs and salary curtailments in the next fiscal year.

The commissioner said the county was very fortunate when finance director Nick Telles and his staff were able to "find" $1.2 million in the budget. The revenue from a GRT had been misdirected into the county's indigent fund instead of the general fund for several years.

"We've had a little cushion for this year but that's not going to happen again," she said. "I don't know that there is a solution. When we start talking about next year's budget, we should have been able to talk about goals for next year.

"But we will have to stick with (services) we absolutely have to have… It means curtailing services more, when we haven't been able to do what we should do."

The failure of the GRT was unfortunate, Commission Chairman Charles Eaton said.

"This decision is going to have a great impact, not only on the future of detention center, but other areas as well such as law enforcement, public safety, public works, animal control," Eaton said.

The chairman said the jail has issues that need to be addressed soon, such as major roof repair, that will have to be paid for somehow.

And even though there are plans to add another 40 cells to the facility, the only real change will be moving the female inmates out of a 50-year-old area of the jail.

Eaton said it was his hope that the GRT would have also been able to provide a revenue stream that would allow for expansion beyond the current plan, to address the housing of inmates outside county.

"In the last couple of years, we have spent more than $1 million a year housing inmates somewhere else," he said. "That's going to continue to plague the county. Unless we come up with a game plan, that population is going to continue to escalate."

Eaton said his biggest fear was the very real possibility of layoffs of county employees.

"I saw the impact of layoffs and going to 32-hour weeks when I was a commissioner in the '90s," he said. "I saw the effects on families and children. That is what I'm truly afraid of."

Detention Center Warden Joe Chavez said he was disappointed the GRT failed, not because it would have meant more money for the jail, but because it would have kept funds in the county's general fund.

"The detention center is going to take money from the general fund whether we got the GRT or not," Chavez said. "Now it's just a matter of what departments and programs are going to be effected by it not passing. The jail has been tapping into the general fund for the last several years; now we are really seeing the effect."

Andersen said after the loss of the GRT three years ago, the jail has been pulling about $1.5 million from the general fund for operating costs, leaving the county without resources to replace or repair equipment, maintain roads or give employees raises.

While the commission has the authority to simply enact the GRT, Commissioner Alicia Aguilar said she felt it should go out to the voters. She also asked for a full budgetary assessment of the detention center before increasing taxes.

"(The jail budget) has gone from $3.5 million to $5 million in the last couple of years," Aguilar said. "Why?"

In an interview after the meeting, Chavez said the biggest reason for rising costs at the jail has been over-crowding.

"We are just getting more inmates. And sending them to Cibola County, we're paying $40,000 to $60,000 a month just to house them," Chavez said. "Medical costs, mental and behavioral health costs all have gone up every year for the last three, four years."

And he added, as the facility ages, repairs cost more.

At the Jan. 15 meeting, where the measure lost on a 3-2 vote, Eaton said the tax was a tough decision.

"But if we don't make this tough decision tonight, we will be in serious trouble next year," he said. "In three or four months, we will have to make the second toughest decision, and that's how balancing the budget will effect law enforcement, fire, EMS, roads and animal control."

Commissioner Lawrence Romero asked if the GRT would free up money in the general fund to do things such as hire more deputies.

"If you would just explain how it would work, so we can sell it to the people," Romero said. "It's not going to be an easy sell to people getting burglarized every day."

Andersen said the tax would do exactly that — it would go directly to supporting the jail, thus freeing up money in the general fund for things such as additional deputies, employee raises and road work.

Aguilar said she still wanted to see projections on spending at the jail to ensure the GRT really would free up money for other services.

"I'm not saying we don't need it, but you are coming to us in crisis management and at the last minute," she said. "Provide me with (the projections) and I will be the first to make the motion. Let's get together and make sure there are assurances for the sheriff, for roads. I'm on board, but not until then."

Andersen said if the ordinance was not passed now, then the next chance for the county to begin collecting the GRT would be January 2015.

"We will have to go through the rest of this year without any extra pennies," she said. "I want a five-year plan, too. But we have an issue we have to face now and we have to have money."

Residents who spoke against the tax, Tom Mraz of Meadow Lake, and James Crawford from Los Lunas, both said the county should make greater efforts to collect the $8.5 million owed in back property taxes before adding a new tax.

"I agree it's needed and I have no ill feelings towards the jail," Crawford said. "I just can't support an increase in my taxes unless and until something is done about the tax cheats."

Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales, Warden Chavez and Robert Gallegos, with the county road department, all urged the commissioners to enact the GRT.

The final vote was Andersen and Eaton in favor, Aguilar, Romero and Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon against.

Aragon didn't offer any comments during the meeting, but in an interview after, said he was frustrated there wasn't more public input on the subject.

"I heard my own concerns come out in what the public had to say," Aragon said. "I think we can make things better for people by being more aggressive in trying to collect the back taxes, and be of more assistance before letting this go up to Santa Fe and waiting on them. If we can do that, we can free up a lot more money than we could get on the GRT."

He added that the facts about the GRT were too general.

"It was said it would get $1.5 million but I didn't see any hard evidence on that," he said. "The tax does seem like it would be of help but I think it will be more beneficial to delve into our other issues and solve those first before we put another tax on people."


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