Recognizes service of Attorney Abigail Burgess and discusses budgets

By Mary Alice Murphy

img 0381Attorney Abigail Burgess, center, received a certificate of recognition and thanks for her 11 years of service at Grant County from Commissioners Chris Ponce, Harry Brown, Alicia Edwards, Billy Billings and Javier Salas.The first item of business for the Grant County Commission special meeting held on Monday, July 29, 2019, was recognition of the service of County Attorney Abigail Burgess, who resigned her position as of the end of July.

She served the county for 11 years as their in-house attorney. Commission Chairman Chris Ponce announced the recognition and handed the certificate of recognition to Burgess. Commissioner Alicia Edwards thanked her for her service to the county. Commissioner Billy Billings noted the 11 years of service and thanked her. Commissioner Harry Browne said he would miss being able to pop into her office with questions. Commissioner Javier Salas thanked her for being available to him during his short time on the commission.

No public input was heard at the meeting.

Financial Officer Linda Vasquez presented the first resolution on the agenda, the fiscal year 2018-19 final budget adjustments. They included temporary transfers from the General Fund to departments until expected funds are received, at which point, the funds would go back into the General Fund. Some funds received increases, and some adjustments caused fund decreases. The overall impact was an increase of $163,842 to the General Fund.

Commissioners approved the resolution.

The next item was the final quarter financial report for fiscal year 2018-19, ending June 30, 2019. "We started the fiscal year with about $4 million in the General Fund, received about $14 million, had transfers out and expenditures of about $9 million, leaving a balance of $4.7 million, above the required three-twelfths reserve. The Road Fund began with a cash balance of $207,000, and after revenue and transfers into the fund, it ended with a cash balance of $361,000. Corrections began with $386,000, $800,000 in revenue, and $1.8 million in transfers, leaving a $741,146 balance."

Browne asked if the numbers are based on actual cash. Vasquez said $10 million more was in all funds than they began with. "Yes, this is cash. Most of the money is from the revenue bonds."

"I found the line item," Browne said. "$7.5 million of it is from revenue bonds."

Commissioners approved the resolution.

The budget hearing began and continued for about two hours.

Vasquez said: "You have all the funds in your packet. I will give highlights on the changes in the final budget from the preliminary budget. We received additional money from delinquent property tax payments and more in PILT (the federal payment-in-lieu-of-taxes for the federal property within the county). We received $723,250 more."

[Editor's Note: It was difficult to keep up with the numbers, and it was almost impossible to hear on the recording, so only snippets of the changes will be provided.]

Among items changes were an addition of $130,000 for professional services for attorney services; a $60,000 increase to IT (information technology) to coincide with changes at the Department of Finance; a memorandum of understanding to provide services in conjunction with Silver City, Hurley, Bayard and Santa Clara; a cash flow adjustment for the Grant County runway at the airport, for which the county will be reimbursed in 2021; a payment to the landfill of a shortfall of $57,000; $64,000 into Regional Dispatch to pay the New Mexico Finance Authority loan. "We don't have the final numbers, so the transfers may not be necessary. We put aside $315,000 in an unbudgeted reserve for potential salary increases. This would leave a cash balance of $180,850. We have $4 million in the unaudited balance, with $13 million budgeted. The $3 million ending balance includes the $315,000."

Vasquez said she had also attached a worksheet with commissioner requests.

Vaquez noted the $40,000 for professional development, as requested by Commissioner Edwards, which would equal about $200 per employee.

The $22,000 for libraries, was requested by Browne. $10 million is already in the budget. Vasquez broke it down as $8,000 going to the Bayard Library; $8,000 to the Silver City Library, $4,000 to the Gila Library; and $2,000 to the rural bookmobile. Billings had requested $35,000 to repair the broken tiles at the Bataan Memorial Veterans Wall. Ponce asked for $20,000 to go to the D.A.R.E program and Vasquez said she had received no request from Salas. "The total of all of these is $107,000 to be added to the budget, leaving a surplus of $47,000, if all these are approved."

She said the Road Fund had a beginning balance of $361,000, revenue of (unintelligible) with $1.8 million in expenditures, minus the reserve, leaving a $68,000 surplus.

In corrections, which has no required reserve, the beginning balance is $141,000, $800,000 in revenue, $1.8 million in transfers, and $3 million (for something), leaving a surplus of $24,000.

Vasquez also noted that there might have been increases of a couple of thousand to departments based on actual 2018-19 expenditures.

"In addition to working on bringing employees up to the mid-level classification, I was also asked how much a 25 cents per hour increase would cost," Vasquez said. Salas interjected that this would be his request. The total cost would be $66,138.

Vasquez noted that none of the requests included law enforcement.

Edwards said she didn't recall the discussion bringing everyone up to mid-level. "Some have been a long time at the mid-point. Some are new and don't belong at the mid-point. It's not fair."

County Manager Charlene Webb said the dollars amount is a starting point. "We were asked how much it would cost."

Edwards said she sees two pieces of discussion. One is the $315,000 to get to mid-point and the second one is the $25 cents an hour raise. "I ask that they remain separate. The unbudgeted reserve to get to mid-point, would we get to decide or approve that?" She received confirmation that the commissioners would make the decision. "While we figure this out, will the money be invested?" Edwards asked.

Vasquez said it remains as cash until the decision is made.

Salas noted that it was his understanding that it was based on the review being completed in six or seven months. "I thought we were waiting on the final study."

Browne said that was not his understanding. "We have done the study. It was completed in 2017. I would hope we continue the revision process, and I hope there is never a time that we stop thinking about it."

Salas said he understood that it was to review to make sure positions were aligned correctly.

Browne again said that was not his understanding.

Edwards said that what Salas said was her understanding.

Ponce said in 2017, the county spent $60,000 on a study, but didn't implement it. "In my opinion, I understood that we started looking at the old plan to catch up to now. We haven't really implemented it, but how can we implement it? I'm not sure the 25 cents should be part of the conversation right now."

Browne said: "When we adopted the compensation plan, we knew we didn't have the funds. Because we've been on the commission for almost three years, it's been in the back of my mind, but I didn't tell you, it was in the back of my mind. I've been waiting on the chance to implement it. It may be obsolete in a few instances and that will be shown in the revision, but we should do it now."

Salas asked if Browne was advocating pushing the reserve into salaries right now.

"I would support that," Browne said.

"I was under the impression that some job descriptions don't fit the jobs," Salas said.

Browne said the process would be continuing.

Edwards said she was having a hard time wrapping her head around it, because "we have 200 people. Some have been here 30 days and some 30 years. If you bring everyone up to mid-point, the new hires are hired at mid-point. I understand the Sheriff's Department step plan, where the employee has steps they go through over the life of that career, and they get raises at certain points. If someone comes in with 10 years of experience, they get hired at that level. The step plan to me seems most fair. We took the salary study and put everyone on a scale. Some people were below it and some above. A handful with 25 years are still at mid-point. I have to understand the long-term impact. If we take the plan and adopt the idea of a step plan, based on time and service, it makes sense. Then people could look forward to raises along the way."

She gave an example, but she said she didn't know the actual numbers. "Say every three years, you can get a certain increase. But it is broken into thirds and each third depends on time and service, with the next third depending on professional development and the last third on evaluations. That's why I want us to think seriously about how we can provide professional development. The challenge we have is basically we have flat revenue. If we spend the $315,000, we have to have it in the budget every year. Or we have to lay off or cut services, if we don't have the money. I would rather have a long-term plan to manage this, so employees know what to expect."

Ponce said he sees a danger if the employee expects aria se, and then the county doesn't have the money to give that raise. "We have to take time to figure it out long-term. Steps plans can be dangerous, too. I prefer percentage raises to specific amounts."

Edwards said the $315,000 is to put people in the appropriate places. "If we take another hit on copper or PILT, we're in trouble. It makes more sense to have a long-term plan to build on. It gives us an idea ahead of time showing we know the obligation to staff that we will try to budget toward."

Browne said: "When we get to a steady state, we won't see increased financial liability every year, because we will have as many leaving as coming in. Unless we build in a COLA (cost of living adjustment), we won't be worried about the amount. It can build up when we can with enough revenue and not when we can't."

"I withdraw my idea to get everyone to the mid-point," Browne continued. "That was a faulty thought I had for a long time that I've got to get out of my head. I like the step plan combined with a compensation plan. Thank you for your patience."

Edwards said it's why she didn't want the decision to be made that day on the $315,000. "I'm not the only one with ideas on this."

Ponce noted that a decision needs to be made soon, because it's already been 2 ½ years since the study.

Salas said he agreed with the step plan and quick implementation. "I think we need a discussion on whether we should have a COLA. We have to think about the lean years, and whether a COLA would require a reduction in services or in salaries."

Edwards said she had done research on COLAs and there were a lot of different ways to implement them. "What I envisioned was giving staff a six-month deadline to have a plan we would approve on how to spend the $315,000, and maybe on how to do a COLA. With the $66,000 per year for a 25-cent increase, I say we give everyone the 25 cent increase now and set a deadline for the review of the compensation plan, a step plan and COLA. A COLA does cause salaries to get farther apart. I want to compensate a little right now and have a long-term plan."

Salas recommended yearly evaluations.

Edward also suggested the county needed its own Human Resources plan on evaluations. "But we're asking a lot of our one-person HR department to do all of these things."

Browne said he would oppose tying salary to performance evaluation. "If the employee is unsatisfactory, let them go. Evaluations can be abused."

Ponce said the evaluation should look at what the employee is doing. "We will have to have some hard conversations."

Edwards said she feels strongly about evaluations and professional development plans. "Working for the county is one of the best jobs in the county, because they get 100 percent health benefits. It should be a place to aspire to work."

Browne asked how much a 1 percent increase would be. Vasquez estimated about $55,000, which would be less than the 25 cents an hour.

Edwards said she had a concern that percentage raises drive salaries farther apart.

Browne explained proportional versus absolute. He said that proportional raises absolutely get farther apart, but if you give absolute raises, the salaries get closer together. "You then have the problem that people with higher skills getting paid the same as those without the skills. It's why I like proportionate. A COLA is a proportional thing."

Edwards said Browne's explanation made her go off the 25-cent raise.

Salas proposed 25 cents now and percentage later. "We can do the 25 cents now without dipping into the $315,000."

Vasquez interrupted and said: "If the board approves all the commissioner requests, we will have only $47,000 left and will have to get into the $315,000 or some other line item."

Salas said: "I guess now is the time to bring this up. I would rather dip into the $25,000 that we are paying to Western New Mexico University for the golf course. Western is flush with cash right now."

Browne said too many issues were under discussion.

Salas made a motion to give 25 cents an hour to employees and to review the compensation plan and create a step plan.

Billings noted that the 25 cents would cost $66,000, while the 1 percent raise would cost $55,000. "I would like to hear from the county manager."

Webb said she agreed that taking care of the staff was first and foremost. "The compensation plan when we did it, we knew it would take years to implement, but it's your decision."

Ponce said he didn't want to give false hope with a step plan to where the county couldn't do it.

Edwards noted the county gave a COLA last year. "Commissioner Salas, you made a motion, which is on the floor, but we need more detail."

Salas said: "25 cents an hour raise and then we look into the step plan and a process for the COLA."

Edwards said the county would need to add a six-months deadline and include evaluations every year, but not tied to salary, and a professional development plan.

Vasquez asked if everyone was included in the raise, except for law enforcement and elected officials. "Does it include directors?"

Edwards the motion should exclude law enforcement, elected officials and chief deputies, which are included under a different ordinance, and appointed positions.

Webb asked for clarification on the professional development plan. "How do you want it tied into the step plan?"

Edwards said she thought the step plan, evaluations and professional development should be tied into a human resources plan. "I think we need a basic recognition plan."

Billings said putting all that together would require a lot more discussion.

"I think there will be a lot of different opinions," Edwards said. "What I want is a long-term plan."

Billings said he wanted to visit with the manager and find out what was good and what was not.

Ponce said input was also needed from department heads and elected officials, especially for the professional development plan.

Salas said evaluations need to be standardized in one solid document.

Ponce noted that in the budget, the Road Department and IT have no training budget.

Vasquez said the $60,000 for IT is to coincide the accounts with New Mexico Finance Authority. "I keep three separate sets of books. I want them to mesh together in the Local Government Division. The money will go to Tyler Technology to update our system."

She also explained the $57,000 shortfall payment to the landfill. "Their budget comes from fees and the environmental gross receipts increment, but it will be short by the $57,000."

Webb said she has been looking at the solid waste ordinance, which was created in 1998. "It needs updating. Our tipping fees increased this year, so they can cover their costs. We will be looking at increasing our fees."

Browne asked if it was a user fee or tax. "To me, it's clearly a tax."

Edwards said there was an increase in the budget to the transfer into Corrections. "We use the General Fund to meet shortfalls."

Vasquez asked for a motion on the commissioner requests and a motion on the 25 cents raise to come out of the $315,000. The motion on the 25 cents was approved.

Edwards said she would withdraw her request for professional development pending a plan. A motion was made on the requests and approved.

Ponce said the $35,000 for repairing the Bataan Veterans Memorial should be for granite.

Webb said that Mr. (Luis) Terrazas had suggested he could build the wall of granite for $30,000, and it couldn't be broken with rocks.

Edwards asked if they were certain it was rocks causing the damage and not shooting damage.

"We think it's rocks," Webb said.

Billings said it could also have been freezing cold and rain that caused the tiles to fall off. "I drove by the Lordsburg Veterans Monument and it's bronze and granite."

Browne said to him the repairs would make more sense packaged with capital costs.

Vasquez said it could be part of the capital process.

"We could put in another line item, but you have a capital outlay column going from $22,000 to $5,000," Webb said.

The motion was approved to put it in capital costs.

Billings said the D.A.R.E. program is dear to his heart, because it and other outreach programs from law enforcement make youths realize that the police "are our friends. I talked to Sheriff Gomez and he said the program costs about $45,000. An anonymous donor gives $20,000 a year, so I support the $25,000.

Vasquez said it's in the Sheriff's Department budget. "But it's not really fully funded. Whatever shortfall there is comes out of regular overtime."

Billings said he would hold his request until there was a need.

Salas asked if he could put in $15,000 to extend the parking areas at the Bataan Pavilion to the edge of the building.

Ponce noted the manager had applied for CDBG and the amount would help the match. "We would use the match with the architectural and engineering fees. Anything above that is more leverage."

Edwards said she suggested tabling the pot of money until it's needed. "We can mentally save the $15,000 until the architectural and engineering plans are complete."

Salas pointed out the CDBG grant is a wish.

Webb said the county would know on Sept 17, whether it will be awarded. "If we get the grant, we will come back with a scope of work."

A motion was made to approve the final budget.

Salas asked that the $25,000 to Western for the golf course should be taken out and put into cash reserves. "There are two areas I want to deal with. The IT Department is one person, so there are problems if she's not available. She needs a raise. I think other areas of economic development, maybe the trails, the money could be better spent on or something new."

Webb suggested it be left in with "your direction not to pay it when we get the invoice."

Ponce said he thinks it will work itself out.

Browne said the commissioners should not be discussing raises for a specific person, such as the IT person. "I think the money should be used for economic development, which is what the golf course is. And I don't want to county to back out of a commitment, even though I don't agree with the expenditure. It would not help our reputation."

Webb said the invoice doesn't come at a specific time.

"I think we should let it go now," Ponce said. "I think more should go into economic development when it helps us and if the situation has the golf course hasn't worked itself out."

Edwards said she would like to know if the $25,000 is required to keep the golf course going. "I was surprised at how many people use the golf course per day. I think it would be unwise not to invest in the golf course, if it would not stay open without the funding."

Webb said she would pose the question to WNMU President Joseph Shepard. "It won't be paid until it comes before you."

"We have to have revenue," Edwards said. "The budget is the most important thing for us to decide. We have to find the balance between revenue and expenses. There are few things we can look at for revenue. When we think about economic development, we have to think about the amenities that people come for."

Webb said she had met that morning with Angela about her IT department. "There are several economic development items in the works. I just missed a meeting on them. There is a lot of conversation around both economic development and IT."

The commissioners approved the final budget as amended.

The decision was made to combine the work session and regular meeting into a combined session on Aug. 8, 2019, as at least one commissioner and maybe two would not be available on Aug. 6. No commissioner had a report.

The meeting was adjourned.