COUNTY EAGER TO WORK WITH LEGISLATORS FOR AREA ISSUES

COUNTY EAGER TO WORK WITH LEGISLATORS FOR AREA ISSUES

By David R. King
Doña Ana County Manager

Last month, I used this space to outline the priorities of the New Mexico Association of Counties as we head into the 2003 legislative session. Basically, the Association of Counties is asking the Legislature to recognize that unfunded state mandates place counties at a huge disadvantage, especially in counties like ours, where population growth is explosive – 29 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census – and legitimate demands for services continue to mount.

Two areas in which Doña Ana County particularly needs for the state to step up funding are in expanding the Third Judicial District Court Complex and paying for the meals and travel expenses associated with state inmates at the county detention facility.

For the past three years, Doña Ana County has placed these items at the top of our legislative wish list. We have met with and lobbied our area Senators and Representatives, and we have been successful in securing legislative seed money for planning the Third Judicial District Court Expansion. Providing space for state agencies (District Court, District Attorney, Public Health and Juvenile Probation) impedes our ability to serve county residents. It only makes sense for the state to assist the counties with costs for state agencies.

As the 2003 Legislature gets underway, you can expect that the top management and elected officials of the county will once again be investing time and energy in Santa Fe to move these priorities forward. We are hopeful that Gov. Bill Richardson – who has spent considerable time in Doña Ana County during the course of his campaign, and therefore is familiar with the urgency of our requests – will support what we hope will be the Legislature’s continuing desire to appropriate funds to Doña Ana County for necessary planning and project implementation.

In presentations around the community to citizens’ groups, as well as entities that request county funding, I often talk about “the little green wedge that could.” The little green wedge is the portion of the pie that Doña Ana County receives from gross receipts taxes once the state, the school and the municipalities of Las Cruces, Sunland Park, Mesilla and Hatch have received their share. I wrote about it once before, about a year ago, in this space. The little green wedge is not a lot, once the pie has been divided.
County governments all over New Mexico – all 33 of them – operate with similar little wedges of gross recipts tax revenue. With that wedge, we provide 100 percent of ambulance services for the county. The cities and school districts pay nothing. We are faced with all indigent hospital claims. The cities and school districts pay nothing. We also pay for large law-enforcement operations that patrol huge areas of land and a detention center for people arrested by all area law enforcement agencies. We pay for the maintenance of hundreds of miles of main roads that connect subdivisions, towns and cities. We pay for housing and transporting state prisoners in our local detention facility.

The load is heavy, and the little green wedge is pushed to its limits every year. Every year, we have to make hard decisions about what we can and cannot fund with what’s left over after the mandates have been met. Every year those decisions are difficult, with many unmet needs remaining across the county.

I encourage you to speak with your state representative and state senator and to support the county’s priorities for legislative funding in 2003. Every dollar that the state puts forward to assist the counties translates to tax dollars being put more directly to work for local residents by local government.

It is fundamentally wrong for local government to bear the burden of financing state programs and supporting state employees in office buildings far more comfortable than those in which local public servants toil. The time is now for New Mexico to support its county governments by paying fairly for mandated services. Let’s work together to make sure the entire Legislature hears the message that our local legislators have been helping us convey.