County officials say tax hike needed

Jack King

Geneva Cooper’s days are filled with anxiety.
“The question you keep asking is, ‘Where are we going to get the money?’” the Curry County manager said Thursday.
A fiscal conservative who has prided herself on keeping a prudent reserve in the county coffers, Cooper is faced in 2003 with a financial situation that she said is hemorrhaging money.
“By state law, we have to keep a reserve that is three-twelfths of budgeted expenditures for the year. That’s about $1.8 million. Right now, we have $2.3 million in the reserve. But we took $1.5 million from our reserve last year to cover expenses. If we spend only as much as we did last year, we won’t have the money. We’ve only got about $490,877 we could spend,” she said.
The money crisis means the one-eighths of a percent gross receipts tax increase the county is requesting in the Sept. 23 special election is a necessity, Cooper said.
“At this point, we have no alternative,” Cooper said. “The county is going to have to enact some kind of tax and the only other tax we have is a property tax. A gross receipts tax — which you pay on goods and services — is fairer. With a property tax, only property owners bear the burden.”
The increase would generate between $750,000 and $800,000 a year. Also, once it is passed, Curry County would be eligible for $48,000 in state small county assistance, for which it would not be eligible until it had passed its third three-eighths of a percent in gross receipts tax, Cooper said.
Cooper said the main cause of the county’s budget crisis is the explosive and on-going expense of its adult detention center, which she calls “a bottomless pit.”
“We budgeted $400,000 for prisoner housing in this fiscal year. We spent $58,150 in July, $60,458 in August and it looks like we’ll spend about $70,000 in September. At this rate, we’ll have spent the whole amount in six or seven months. Then we’ll have to take another $400,000 out of reserves,” she said.
The detention center’s population has increased an average of 100 prisoners in the last seven months, Cooper said. With sentencing guidelines mandated by the state, there is no way Curry County can control the jail’s population, she said.
Other things have contributed to the county’s budget crisis, but none has had the impact of the detention center’s expenses, she said.
Interest on county deposits has declined 34 percent since 2001, just as investment income nationwide has fallen. Both the county roads department and its indigent fund will dip into reserves this year to pay for their services — in the Indigent Fund, primarily because the county is using fund money to pay the medical expenses of most detention center prisoners.
In the last year, the county commission approved pay increases for elected officials and employees, a 4 percent raise for officials in December 2002, a 3 percent raise for employees in January and a 4 percent employee raise in July. But, Cooper said, the total of all those raises is about $200,000.
“We had a shortfall of $1.5 million,” she said.
The detention center is taking so much money out of the budget, the county can’t give other departments more, Cooper said.
With one deputy for every 100 square miles of Curry County, Sheriff Roger Hatcher has said he needs more personnel, but county officials say they can’t afford it. Neither can the county pay the full cost of a proposed county special events center, nor a full-year’s salary for the center’s proposed executive director.
County Commissioners Pete Hulder and Kathrynn Tate voted “no” May 20, when the commission approved putting the gross receipts tax increase on the ballot. Hulder said Friday he still opposes it, saying the county should spend its reserve before it asks taxpayers for more money. But Tate said she has changed her mind.
“When we voted on it, I thought we had enough money for the detention center, but we don’t. It’s just draining our budget and we’re going to have to have some kind of a tax. I think a property tax would be more of a burden,” she said.
“A lot of it is the (sentencing) mandates the state is sending down. The judges have no choice. I feel like we’re going to have to go to the Legislature to get any change.”
Commissioner Ed Perales, who voted for the salary increases, defended them Friday.
“We froze wages for an entire year before we granted that increase; employees were already 6 percent behind. How could I defend elected officials getting a raise and employees not getting one?” he asked
Perales also said jail expenses are the county’s main problem, noting that its inmate population has almost doubled in two years.
Commissioner Albin Smith said the county’s problem is straightforward.
“It is simply that there are expenses — like the detention center — that we have no control over and we don’t have the money to operate without a tax increase. There’s no other choice, but a property tax,” he said.