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Commissioners vote to support county legislative priorities

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Will Cavin, seen at a September 2019 meeting. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Three funding priorities related to prisoner services and emergency medical services and three state law reform items affecting the state’s counties are among the legislative priorities that Chaves County commissioners have decided to support.

New Mexico Counties, an association representing all of the state’s 33 counties, has outlined six issues that it will seek to have addressed during the 2020 Legislative Session, which begins Jan. 21.

The Chaves County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously, 5-0, to support the priorities during its Thursday meeting.

Returning this year to the list of priorities are requests for increased allocations in the primary state spending bill, House Bill 2, to reimburse counties for prisoner detention and prisoner transportation and to establish permanent funding for Emergency Medical Services in the state Department of Health, starting with $5 million a year.

The association indicates that local governments spend $8.3 million a year to detain state prisoners, but received only $2.3 million in state funding last year. The group also wants $750,000 allocated to county sheriff’s departments to pay for prisoner transport. State law requires local agencies to provide the transportation, but money has rarely been available to reimburse the local entities.

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Chaves County Sheriff Mike Herrington said his office has not received any reimbursements for state prisoner transports during his 11-month tenure, although his deputies are traveling with prisoners several times each week. As an example, he said that his agency has had $9,710 in expenses so far in November.

Similarly, Emergency Medical Services has been established for some time as a way to help smaller communities pay for ambulance and medical service, but has never been guaranteed funding.

In terms of legislative reform, the group is once again asking that the Legislature expand programs that provide behavioral health services to adults and juveniles in detention centers.

Commission Chair Will Cavin, who serves with the New Mexico Counties group, said he considers that issue an especially significant one.

“All of these issues are pretty big. I know there are others,” Cavin said. “But one of the big ones that stands out for me is the behavioral health issues. We, as counties, have become the de facto behavioral health facilities in the state (through our detention centers), and it is very costly and it would be nice if we could get some help from the state on this.”

Issues that did not appear last year include legislative reform regarding the retirement fund for public employees in the state, known as the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico.

PERA is only about 71% funded at the current time, with an estimated $6 billion shortfall if all employees entitled to retirement funds were to receive them. Public agencies across the state are required to reflect a portion of that shortfall in their financial statements and that has affected bond ratings for some entities.

New Mexico Counties is asking that local governments not be required to pay higher contributions as a way to solve the problem, stating that “New Mexico public employers’ rates currently are among the highest in the country.”

“They want to make sure that the contributions continue to flow in there,” said County Manager Stanton Riggs, “and we find some way to make this work where all the parties can live with it.”

Cavin added that the state’s public employees are all concerned with the issue and want to know that their retirement funds will be available when they need them.

Another legislative priority seeks increased disbursements from the Law Enforcement Protection Fund to local agencies. A bill was introduced in 2019 that would have guaranteed $50,000 to all county and municipal law enforcement agencies, instead of amounts based on populations served, and an increase from $600 to $1,000 for each uniformed officer employed by those agencies. The bill passed the House of Representatives but not the Senate.

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