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Chaves County holds initial budget workshop

“As all of you know, we have a human trafficking problem that is going to the lawless areas of our county. Right now, that is the (Pecos) Valley,” says Mike Herrington, Chaves County Sheriff, in describing the need for additional deputies. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Sheriff’s Office describes ‘dire’ needs

Whether the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office has a more urgent need for additional deputies or additional vehicles and whether the county’s contribution to the Roswell/Chaves County Economic Development Corp. should be cut in half were central questions raised during a Thursday budget workshop held by the Chaves County Board of Commissioners.

The commissioners met at the Chaves County Administrative Center for a preliminary discussion about the 2019-20 interim operating budget. The board is due to vote on it during a May 23 meeting.

Joe Sedillo, county finance director, said balancing the $42.6 million proposed budget was a primary goal.

“We adopted the concept of fiscal restraint on this budget,” he said. “Our approach is to balance this budget without using our reserves, and so far, this is looking great.”

The workshop focused on the road department, the Chaves County Detention Center and the Sheriff’s Office. Riggs characterized them as the “big three” county departments in terms of expenditures, as well as the impact budget allocations have on public welfare, insurance costs and litigation.

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The road department and Chaves County Detention Center budgets will be discussed in a future article.

More vehicles, deputies needed

Sheriff Mike Herrington told commissioners that the department is down by six deputies and needs six new patrol vehicles.

He began his discussion about staffing needs by explaining that he has asked for about 20% more for overtime, or $30,000, because of the vacancies.

He said many deputies are working 13 days out of the 14-day pay period. Herrington said that such workloads are not ideal, especially given that deputies often are required to attend court hearings on their days off.

“We were down eight positions,” he said. “Right now, I already have two guys hired on and three that are (having psychological screenings) and three more that are in the background (check) process.”

Herrington said his office is having success in attracting many applicants, which he attributed in part to the good benefits and pay offered by the county. But he and commissioners agreed in later conversations that it could be August or September before any of the new hires are ready to patrol alone and up to four months beyond that if new hires must first become credentialed law enforcement officers.

Herrington also told commissioners that there is an urgent need for officers in the Pecos Valley near Dunken and along State Highway 82.

“We do not have a (Pecos) Valley unit at all, and we have seen an increase in the cartel in the Valley. We have seen an increase in drugs,” he said. “And, as all of you know, we have a human trafficking problem that is going to the lawless areas of our county. Right now, that is the Valley.”

But the need for more deputies ran head-on into the need for more vehicles.

Herrington and commissioners said being down six vehicles from the number needed is due to years when no funding was available as well as times when previous sheriffs did not purchase new vehicles as a result of problems with state contracts or other factors.

For that reason, Herrington has requested $216,000 for six vehicles in capital outlay requests, which is outside the operating budget. Without those, deputies will have to double up with each other or work in the office.

At one point, the conversation between Herrington and Commissioner Robert Corn, one of two commissioners to serve on the budget committee, turned tense as Corn suggested that Herrington choose between his office’s new evidence technician position and a new vehicle as a current operating budget allocation.

“You can’t have both. Tell us what you want, sheriff,” Corn said.

“Personnel,” Herrington responded.

Corn later said, “I understand the sheriff’s needs, I understand that the Valley is in dire straits down there. … I want to help the sheriff. I want to get everything done that he needs. I want to give him the tools he needs. But it is a building process. It can’t just be — it’s not instant.”

Reconsidering allocation

The Roswell/Chaves County Economic Development Corp. is facing a second year of steep cuts, if the initial budget allocation stands.

Bud Kunkel, EDC board president, presented what has been a standard request for a couple of years for $75,000. But he was told that the initial budgeted amount is only for $25,000.

That’s close to 47.5% less than the $48,750 initially provided by the county in 2018-19.

But the county did give an additional $25,000 to the EDC later in the fiscal year so that the group could assist the USA Beef Packing operation in its expansion needs and its Local Economic Development Act funding requirements.

Corn and Commissioner T. Calder Ezzell Jr., the other budget committee member, said that the county’s budget is tight this year, with projected gross receipts sales taxes and other revenue figures not as large as expected for reasons that staff members are still looking into.

“We are, as Commissioner Corn has stated, skeptical of our revenue projections,” said Ezzell. “So I would like to see us go forward on the same basis, with $25 (thousand) that we have allocated and your understanding that our door is always open if you have something for which you have a need.”

Chair Will Cavin expressed a different view.

He said that he recalled that one reason the county voted to reduce the EDC funding last year was partially out of concern that the county was going to have to continue to subsidize the American Airlines’ Phoenix flights, which it has not been required to do in 2019.

“It is kind of like us having to go to Washington D.C., and beg for our PILT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) money and our SRS (Secure Rural Schools) money,” Cavin said. “I would really like to see it at least be what it was last year. I know it’s a tight budget and I know we are doing this and not doing that, but to keep cutting this organization, I think, is not in our best interest.”

Kunkel said he was disappointed and hoped that commissioners would give additional consideration.

He said that the number of businesses in the county has increased 4.5% from 2017 to 2018 to just below 11,000, growth he said that EDC helped to create.

He listed other 2018-19 EDC accomplishments as the establishment of two federal opportunity zones, the USA Beef Packing expansion, an expansion by Leprino Foods that EDC helped to secure state funding for, a reorganization of film studios north of Roswell so that it is eligible for state film tax incentives, the promotion of the Hagerman industrial park and successful efforts this year to pass the regional air authority enabling legislation.

“To cut it another 50% is literally an indicator to me that you think we are not doing a good job,” said Kunkel. “And I think our track record stands on its own. We are not just doing a good job. We are doing a great job for this city. There are a lot of things we are doing to help businesses, and a lot of those are in the county.”

Other sources of EDC revenues come from the city of Roswell, federal and state grants and 132 business memberships.

In response to questions after the meeting, Sedillo said that the dollar difference between what was given to the EDC last year and this year did not go to any one specific entity or line item in the county budget but rather was redistributed in general through the budget. He also said that the Roswell Chamber of Commerce, also responsible for business development efforts, is allocated to receive $57,500 for 2019-20.

The EDC has written its members to ask them to speak to commissioners about the funding request and initial allocation.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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