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County outlines good budget picture so far

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Lisa Dunlap Photo Marcos Nava, head of the Roswell Hispano Chamber of Commerce, speaks Thursday to Chaves County commissioners about his organization’s request for funding.

Chaves County managers have presented a preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year that actually increases the general operating budget a smidge to $26.78 million, requires no layoffs and allows for $1.5 million in building improvements.

Yet members of the Board of Commissioners, in reviewing the information at a Thursday budget workshop, conceded that the county’s financial situation could change significantly in the months ahead, depending on what happens with the COVID-19 situation and the state public health orders that have restricted business activity as a way to stop the spread of the virus.

The state of New Mexico is predicting a budget shortfall of about $1.8 billion due both to the COVID-19 emergency and the oil and gas industry downturn, and many cities and counties are slashing budgets at this time.

“To be able to do this budget and be where we are at is not just because of right now but because of the past, the past budget committees and the past commissions for the last 12 years at least, probably going further back,” said Will Cavin, chairman of the board. “We have been good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. That has put us in a position right now where we are not in trouble. We are able to go ahead and really continue business as usual. Now six months from now, a year from now, I might not be able to say that and those red pencils might need to start coming out.”

County Manager Stanton Riggs also said that years of planning and wise stewardship of money have allowed the county to escape the need for steep reductions or layoffs and to plan for some increased expenditures, including picking up a 3% increase in state health insurance costs for employees.

The county also has made an initial allocation of $503,207 to nine outside entities and municipalities. Commissioners did have some discussion about those requests, with an indication that they might not approve all those requests when they vote on the budget, scheduled to occur at the May 21 meeting.

Riggs said that the proposed budget gives four new vehicles to the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office and allocates money for the county’s portion of an ongoing emergency communications system upgrade being undertaken with the city of Roswell.

“We have been able to do a lot of things and continue with a lot of things, but there is one more thing that we really think we need to do this year and that is continue with our county infrastructure,” Riggs said.

Some county investments are maturing this year, and the plan is to use some of those funds for three major projects at the Chaves County Administrative Center: replacing a chiller for $160,000; expanding and improving Area D on the south side of the building; and reroofing the center for $850,000.

He added that the major work would not occur until spring, so some of that money would be available for other needs if the financial situation changes in coming months.

As presented, the general operating budget for the fiscal year 2021 starting July 1 is $26,784,808, a 0.59% increase from the fiscal year 2020 budget. Operating expenses are $26,651,710, giving the county a $133,098 operating surplus.

Total budget expenses, including capital projects and other non-operational expenses, have been given at $51,087,524. Total budget revenues are expected to be $47,329,982, with Chief Financial Officer Joe Sedillo indicating that reserves and other funds are available to offset deficits. He said that payroll represents about 62% of the operating budget and 34% of the total budget.

Commissioners heard from the managers of all the major departments within the county, including the “big three” in terms of expenses, Roads Department, the Chaves County Detention Center and the Sheriff’s Office. Other department managers spoke from the Treasurer’s Office, Planning and Zoning, the Assessor’s Office, Facilities Management and Information Technology.

Managers talked about efforts to keep their budgets flat, with some agreeing to delay future staff additions for the upcoming budget year. That included the Treasurer’s Office, which will delay adding one new position, and the Sheriff’s Office, which will hold off on five positions that it had wanted to hire.

Clay Corn, administrator of the Detention Center, said the county is expecting to save about $745,000 this year due to the closure of its juvenile detention center. That occurred in December. During the current 2020 fiscal year, the county budgeted $965,310 to operate its own juvenile detention center, which held about two to three Chaves County residents a day. This year, the county anticipates spending $220,000 to pay other detention centers to house the youth.

The county has allocated more than $523,000 requested by outside entities. Municipalities within the county are asking for funds for their emergency medical services and fire and police service, with $17,500 budgeted for Lake Arthur, $20,000 for Hagerman and $17,500 for Dexter.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture predator control program is asking to be funded at $108,133.38, while the Chaves County Extension Services has asked for $108,074 for general operations and $25,000 for its 4-H and FFA youth programs.

Three economic and business development agencies in the county have requested $227,000. The Roswell Chamber of Commerce is asking for the same amount it received last year, $57,500. The Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. has requested $150,000, triple what the county provided in fiscal year 2020 and double what was provided in recent years. The Roswell Hispano Chamber of Commerce is asking for $19,500, the first time in a number of years it has sought any funding from the county.

There was some discussion about the Hispano Chamber of Commerce request, with Commissioner Robert Corn saying that he expects to see detailed financial reports, annual plans and a contract before he would vote for any funding. Another commissioner indicated the request might not be funded until December to give time for the proper documentation to be prepared.

Marcos Nava, who has been rebuilding the organization and its governing board for the past 14 months and also serves as chair of the Roswell 2020 Complete Count Committee for the census, said he would be willing to submit the necessary information.

“I will make sure that you get all the records that are required of us,” he said. “I welcome anyone to come and visit us and spend time with us and look at our records. We are open books.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.