COUNTIES PUT FORTH 2003 LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

COUNTIES PUT FORTH 2003 LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

By David R. King
County Manager

Last June, upon accepting the presidency of the New Mexico Association of Counties, District 5 Commissioner Gilbert T. Apodaca vowed to lobby hard at the state level for changing the status quo in several critical areas in which counties are unfairly expected to provide service without adequate revenue or state support. This month, Commissioner Apodaca will convene the winter conference of the Association of Counties in Santa Fe, where he will ask Gov. Bill Richardson to listen closely to the issues identified by the New Mexico Association of Counties and to work with the association toward equitable change that will ultimately benefit all New Mexico residents.

The association of counties has identified seven priorities for the 2003 Legislature to consider in the work that it begins this month. With only two exceptions – standardized DWI testing across the state and the removal of term limits for county elected officials – the priorities agreed upon by the Association of Counties have to do with funding inequities imposed by the state.

For instance, the state needs to relieve counties of the burden, cost and responsibility of housing state workers. District court personnel, district attorneys, public health officials, and adult and juvenile probation personnel are state workers who collect state paychecks. It is wrong to make counties use their resources to pay for the buildings in which state employees work. And yet that is the mandate.

In Doña Ana County, we are involved in the expansion of the Third Judicial District Court Complex to accommodate more trials and more judges. We estimate this project will cost, at a minimum, $8 million, and we’re asking the Legislature to fund it. If the Legislature refuses, the county will likely have to pass a bond to make the improvements, even though not a single county employee (other than custodians and maintenance personnel) will work in the building. It will be used exclusively by state personnel, even though the county will be asked to foot the bill. Further, the county will continue to expend resources for security, utilities, maintenance and upkeep.

The state also must pay its fair share for housing and transporting state prisoners. Detention operations are among the most expensive functions of county government, and state prisoners, for whom the counties receive zero reimbursement, take up a disproportionate amount of space in these facilities. When these prisoners require transportation, proper security protocol mandates that deputies be taken off the streets to escort them, resulting either in overtime situations or less-than-optimal police presence in the affected communities. This means that not only are the counties absorbing state costs, but the residents of the communities can have their safety compromised. Counties also receive no compensation for housing state inmates, even though they cost about $70 each, per day, to house, feed and keep secure.

On the issue of revenue, New Mexico is one of a handful of states that does not require sales disclosures on real estate transactions. We are requesting that all residential property transactions require disclosure of the sales price to the office of the County Assessor, so that we can more closely track market trends and fairly assess properties for taxation purposes. The bulk of each county’s revenue is property taxes, and it is high time that the counties be given the tools by which to collect their fair share from this revenue source.

One of the Association’s non-financial goals is to remove term limits for county elected officials. These limits do not apply to the Legislature, and they do not apply to municipalities. They should be removed from county officials, as well. Term limits take away from the voter the opportunity to retain institutional knowledge in vital county offices. We should trust the voters to decide when any individual is no longer serving the interests of his or her constituency.

Doña Ana County stands firm in its resolve to further the agenda of the Association of Counties in this year’s Legislature. I am hopeful that readers of The Bottom Line will support these initiatives, as well.