Edwards gave a breakdown of where county revenues come from and the value of benefits county employees receive.
[Editor's Note: This is part 3 and the final part of a comprehensive multi-part series of articles on the Commission regular session on Nov. 9, 2017.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
Elected officials gave their monthly reports at the Grant County Commission regular session on Nov. 9, 2017.
Sheriff Raul Villanueva spoke first. "We had 682 calls during the past month, creating 158 reports, and we went to 29 motor vehicle crashes."
He reported 16 burglaries in October, as opposed to nine in September.
"I want to stress to the public to be observant and call in any suspicious activities," Villanueva said. "The city is dealing with a mountain lion. They got one and are trying to trap another one."
He said his department is running shorthanded and he thanked his staff for shifting to cover all operations. "Our new hires are going through field training. We had no issues on Halloween. I think the trunk or treats are impacting positively." He also reported that two of his deputies have joined the state police.
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos asked whether they would be stationed locally or elsewhere. "State police already has 21 people here." Villanueva did not know where they were being sent or whether they were staying in the area.
County Clerk Marisa Castrillo said her office is gearing up for the 2018 elections. "Candidate information is up on the Secretary of State's website. We are doing a switch over on voter registration processes. We've been training hard."
Ramos came back with another question for Villanueva. "I attended a meeting on the tracking system. It seems like a great system, but I'm not happy with the cost. They said the state would give us five scanners, but they cost $1,200 a piece, and we need more than five. Are there possible grants?"
He continued and said training would be required, the department would need computers in the cars, not just desktops. "The cost was discouraging. All the local entities were there, including state police."
Commissioner Alicia Edwards said the system sounded like giant data collections.
"The state would provide the software," Villanueva said, "and up to five scanners and printers in patrol cars. But they wouldn't provide computers."
"How many units would you need to have the scanners and printers?" Edwards asked.
"We would need 21, so 16 more," Villanueva said.
"To be fully operational, we would need 20 more," Edwards said.
Ramos noted the thermal printers would send the information directly to the magistrate courts.
"We would have to purchase some new laptops," Villanueva said. Ramos said he thought the system could be used on less expensive iPads or tablets.
Commissioner Billy Billings said he has heard that some law enforcement departments have grant writers.
"We are not writing new grants," Villanueva said. "We are just continuing to receive old ones."
Edwards said she would like to see a written proposal for the tracking system on how many units would be needed and the costs.
County Manager Charlene Webb said the system is the same as the one used in Luna County.
"I would like to see us all on the same page," Ramos said. "I think it's a great system. I think it will help you be more efficient."
Villanueva concurred, but said the drawback is the cost.
The Grant County Dispatch Director Barbara Schalkosski said it was a very good system and cuts down on office time. "It would make it much easier writing tickets."
Edwards asked if it was seamless with Dispatch.
? Schalkosski replied that Dispatch uses a different system because of federal regulations. "Dispatch at the state level has a new system. It will be free for us the first year and then $100,000 a year after that."
Commissioner Harry Browne asked if Dispatch would have visuals on all units, if they are not part of the state system.
"We can put trackers on each unit," Schalkosski said. "I was on the committee for the state system. I liked the new system, but I'm not sure we can afford it. The state police system can track units as long as they have internet service. We are looking at the best option for this county."
Edwards asked Villanueva about the system costing about $1,200 per scanner plus the tracker. "Do you have enough reliable internet service throughout the county?"
"We use Verizon cards," Villanueva said. "But we still have intermittent service. It's hit and miss in certain areas."
Edwards said she would like a written proposal on the potential costs of the system by the next meeting.
Browne questioned the new voter registration system statewide.
"We will still have online registration available on our website," Castrillo said. To a question about what changes are expected, Castrillo said the new system would "keep us in communication with the state."
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten said next Tuesday, the commission was convening a special meeting to hear from Holloman Air Force Base on the proposed increased flyovers in the area, plus the proposed dropping of flares. "This is not a scoping meeting."
"I would like to ask for public comments after the presentation, but maybe not questions and answers," Kasten said.
Browne asked if the commissioners would be able to ask questions.
"Hopefully, he can answer questions," Kasten said.
Webb confirmed that commissioners could ask questions.
Browne suggested a time limit of three minutes per public input, and a sign-up sheet, so people will be respectful of time.
Commissioners gave reports.
Edwards said it was the one-year anniversary of the three of the commissioners (Billings, Browne and Edwards) being elected. "It's been an interesting and challenging time." She encouraged people to go to the Holloman Air Force base website and comment on the issue.
She said she attended, the previous evening on Nov. 8, the New Mexico Department of Transportation meeting on replacing the two trestle bridges on New Mexico 152. "You can make public comment through December 8 and see maps at flh.fhwa.dot.gov/projects/NM/152-bridges."
"There was a lot of comment last night," Edwards said. "The new two-lane bridges will be able to handle commercial trucks and vehicles longer than 53 feet. It will change the dynamics on 152. I encourage the Department of Transportation to complete the geometry study to inform the signage." The project manager will be Brent Nagen, who can be reached at email@example.com.
She confirmed that election guides for those wishing to run for office next year are available, with the filing date being March 13. "Two commissioner seats will be open, as Commissioners Ramos and Kasten will be termed out, Also to be elected will be the assessor, the probate judge and the magistrate judges."
"In the course of the past 11 months, I have tried to listen to what people say to me in calls and email. "I hear many concerns about the pay of county employees and not getting raises. So, I created a simplified version of how the county pays its employees."
The county has restricted funding, which can be used only for specific purposes. Unrestricted funding is used for general operating expenses, and comes from property tax, gross receipts tax and some revenue generating services.
Other funding comes through PILT (payment in lieu of taxes for federally owned property), SRS (secure rural schools), copper production and small-county assistance.
Thirty-five percent to 40 percent of the General Fund comes from sources not under the control of the county. Over the past three years, the county has lost $1 million from those sources. Sixty-six percent of the General Fund goes to payroll."
"This is an illustration of how important it is to have conservative management," Edwards said. "It has been my observation that the county is doing a number of things that are conservative, but that are intended to maximize the efficiency of the county and to avoid layoffs."
One of the most significant was when the county made the commitment to pay 100 percent of the health insurance and PERA (public employee retirement act) distributions for its employees. They remain paid in full.
"I know it's difficult to go without a raise," Edwards said, "but I stress the value of 100 percent paid benefits, which continue to rise in value. The average value of the benefits is $21,000 a year. That is essentially equal to an additional salary of $26,000 or $12.68 an hour. That is highly significant. 100 percent benefits are very rare. The rates are more than what 25 percent of the Grant County employees make. I encourage the employees to reflect on those valuable benefits."
She said she did a basic case study on a local professional, whose workload over the past 12 years has increased 100 percent, with a 31 percent increase in hours to keep up, a 28 percent increase in salary, which comes to a 4.25 percent net loss.
"I think the county has done an amazing job of taking care of county employees," Edwards said. "Not everyone is going to be happy with these comments. I hold office hours from 10 a.m. to noon every Tuesday, except for county meeting days."
Billings, the next to give a report, thanked Edwards for spelling it out. He also welcomed Gila Regional Medical Center's newest surgeon, Dr. Tariq Ibrahim, who had stayed for the meeting.
"I have made a reminder to myself," Billings continued. "As county commissioners, we can only make accurate decisions when we get accurate information. We were told at the last meeting that Grant County is in the top 5 percent in tax collection in the state. But, after doing research, I found out that only six or seven counties in the state have worse rates of collection. If you don't know, just say you don't know."
He said he and County Manager Webb had attended a meeting with about 125 people in Cliff. "State Police Officer Neal and Sheriff's Department Sgt. Burns also attended. The area has seen an increase in crime. Ideas that came from the audience will bring a follow up meeting. The citizens and the Sheriff want to reduce crime in that area."
Billings also said since the 2008 recession, the unemployment rate has dropped in the U.S. to 4.1 percent and the gross domestic product has gone up 3.1 percent, but not in Grant County.
"Looking at New Mexico and Grant County, we need to be looking at how to get our gross domestic product up," Billings concluded.
Browne commended Edwards for her report. "She mentioned the county's lack of control over revenues. We have little control of property tax, even if property values go up. The state puts a 3 percent limit on increases and the state rates are designed to keep our revenues stable. We receive about $4.8 million in property tax and about $1.1 million in gross receipts tax. Unless we get net new value, we don't get more revenue."
He said it wasn't a bad idea for people to comment on the Holloman issue.
"We get cynical on what happens to comments," Browne said. "You can also go to the Gila Resources Information Project and the New Mexico Wilderness Society webpages to comment. They are opposed to the increase of flyovers. I suppose you can find ones that are pro. There will be a rally at 5 p.m. before the 6 p.m. meeting. Edwards and I will be speaking."
He said he attended "the great dance for Support of People in Need."
Ramos also thanked Edwards for the information. "Remember that health insurance costs have gone up. That's a raise for employees, who don't have to pay the premiums."
"Now, it's so important that the county has its audits up to date," Ramos continued. "And that we have correct information."
About the recent Southwest County Commission Alliance, he said that the group talked about economics and projects "that we want in our counties. We want to save our effluent waters. Luna has a project and so does Catron. As an alliance, we hope we can approach the state to get studies started. "
"I'm also wishing Cobre volleyball and Silver volleyball and football the best at the state tournaments," Ramos said. "I think we've been responsible in the county with our budgets."
"One of the things that has been key to my success and to Browne's and Billlings' success is our county manager's open-door policy," Edwards said. "I think Charlene does an amazing job. I have learned more from her than I thought I needed to know."
The meeting adjourned.