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County group’s legislative priorities get local support

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Chaves County elected leaders have agreed to support five legislative priorities forwarded by the New Mexico Association of Counties.

The priorities that the association wants to push for at 2018 legislative session, scheduled to begin Jan. 16, involve the Forfeiture Act affecting local law enforcement, county input into health care policy, county involvement in tax policy, a proposed local election law that would create one day every odd-numbered year for all non-partisan local elections to be held statewide; and the extension of a liquor distribution tax meant to fund local DWI prevention programs.

Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko serves as the county’s representative on the association’s board of directors, which voted in August on the top legislative aims for the group.

Kunko said he was particularly interested in the efforts to support a Local Election Act. According to the NMAC website, that legislation would establish one day on odd-numbered years for all local taxing entities statewide, including counties, school districts, special hospital districts or water boards, to hold elections. He said the hopes are that doing so will increase voter participation in important issues.

“We had one (an election) in May for the Hagerman-Dexter soil and water, I think it was. We had 13 people show up, and it was a bond question,” Kunko said, “and those kind of turnouts when you are talking about money like that is really bothering a lot of people and bothering us. We want turnout. We want people to show up. We prepare for people to show up. We are hoping that, if we have them all at the same time, we would have more people making those decisions.”

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Chaves County Chair Robert Corn noted that attitudes change over the years, referring to the “ebb and flow” of things.

“In 1980, I carried the legislation because all these counties and municipalities wanted to do their own thing,” said Corn, who used to be a New Mexico state representative. “Now, 30 years later, we are back to wanting to go back to the Secretary of State.”

The other issue that interested commissioners involves the Forfeiture Act, which was amended in 2015 and has had “unintended consequences” for law enforcement, according to the NMAC. A 2017 proposed bill to address concerns was thought to have enough votes to pass, but it never made it the floor for a vote. The Roswell City Council is also supporting efforts to change the 2015 version of the act.

The 2015 amendments prohibited seizing property unless there is a criminal conviction. Then any items seized or abandoned during crimes have to go toward the state general fund, not the law enforcement agencies, and cannot be shared with federal government unless their worths exceed a certain amount. As a result, local law enforcement agencies have been stuck with storing large amounts of property at their own expense.

“We need to get something done, if nothing else with abandoned property that I can’t do anything with,” said Sheriff Britt Snyder. “I have to give it to the state treasurer and the state treasurer doesn’t want it. … We have rooms that are going to be overflowing with abandoned property and asking to rent new space. That is kind of where we are all at this stage, so something has to give. So just abandoned property would be huge for us, but we wish they would go back to the way it was three years ago.”

Several other actions occurred at the meeting, including the following decisions.

• Commissioners approved providing the Chaves County JOY Centers in Dexter, Hagerman, Lake Arthur and Roswell with money for nine vehicles to be used for transporting seniors or for delivering meals to senior citizens.

• The board voted to adopt the property tax rate established by the Secretary of Finance and Administration. According to County Manager Stanton Riggs, even when county commissioners have voted against the tax rates, they have nevertheless been imposed by the state.

• Commissioners passed new policies regarding cremations of indigent individuals. The new policy specifically bars covering services for people who have willfully given away real or personal property shortly before their death so that they will qualify as indigent.

• The board recommended two people, Dan Parsons and George Mata, for the Chaves County Labor Management Relations Board. Parsons has been a member for about a year, according to county staff. Mata is a retired military man, a former Roswell firefighter and a current security guard.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.