City, railroad reach agreement

By Jack King

Curry County is facing a projected budget shortfall that could reach as high as $400,000, County Manager Geneva Cooper said Monday.
The amount of the shortfall between spending and revenue in the county’s 2003-04 budget has varied between $200,000 and $400,000 during the budget development process, Cooper said.
The county commission is expected to debate today whether taxes should be raised to cover the shortfall, and if so, what method. The commission meets at 9 a.m. today in the Curry County Courthouse.
Cooper told the commission May 5 that the county could cover the shortfall by increasing property taxes, increasing gross receipts taxes, or both.
A 1 mil property tax increase would generate $400,000 and could be enacted by resolution, without a vote by county residents. A one-eighth percent gross receipts tax increase could generate $750,000, but would require a vote by county residents, she said.
Commissioner Pete Hulder has said he opposes a tax increase and suggested the county cut expenses and dip into its reserve to cover the shortfall. He said Monday he needed to confer with Cooper about any new information on the shortfall before sticking to that position.
Commission Chairman Tim Ashley said he thinks a tax increase is necessary to cover the shortfall.
“A budget is a projection, based on current trend lines. With the current trends, the situation is not going to improve and, once you start dipping into your reserves, you lose interest and get into a reactive, rather than proactive, situation,” he said.
Ashley said Cooper told him her estimation of the shortfall increased this week because she discovered the county is not collecting the amount of property taxes it has in the past, primarily due to delinquent payments by property owners.
Cooper said the major factors in the shortfall are falling income from the county’s investments, a 16 percent increase in the cost of insurance for county employees, and the increased costs of housing and caring for an unexpectedly large number of prisoners in the county detention center.
In December, commissioners approved a 3 percent raise for county employees and a 16 percent raise for five elected officials — Tax Assessor Randy Williams, Sheriff Roger Hatcher, Probate Judge Ribble Holloman and Commissioners Ed Perales and Kathrynn Tate. Cooper said the raises totaled about $120,000 and were a factor, along with the others, in the budget shortfall.
Ashley said the raises are not as big a factor in the shortfall as the jail expenses.
“The thing about the jail is that it’s on-going and we can’t see an end to it,” he said.
Cooper said if the commissioners want to put a gross receipts tax increase before voters, they could put it on the ballot during a Sept. 23 special election called by Gov. Bill Richardson seeking voter approval for education proposals.
Also in today’s meeting, commissioners will consider approving an agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad which could lead to the closing of the Wheaton Street railroad crossing.