County considers tax hike to compensate for budget deficit

By Jack King: CNJ staff writer

Faced with a $1.3 million shortfall in their 2004-2005 budget, Curry County commissioners voted Tuesday to consider increasing county gross receipts taxes by 3/16 of a percent.

That’s about 18 cents extra per $100 sale on merchandise.

Commissioners said most of the shortfall is the result of growing expenses at the county’s adult detention center. On average, expenses have increased $10,000 a month for the last 10 months, Detention Center Administrator Don Burdine said.

The tax increase — composed of a 1/8 percent and a 1/16 percent gross receipts tax increase authorized for counties by Senate Bill 88 in the last Legislature — would generate about $1.2 million annually. But, since it could not go into effect until January 2005, it would provide only $600,000 in the upcoming fiscal year, said County Manager Geneva Cooper.

Commissioner Tim Ashley asked Cooper how the county would cover the rest of the shortfall.

She said she expects to carry over roughly $500,000 from this year’s budget into the coming year. Also, state Department of Finance and Administration officials have said they may be willing to let the county use more of its state-mandated reserve if it shows it is taking steps to deal with the deficit, she added.

Under the provisions of Senate Bill 88, the tax increases would be subject to a “negative referendum,” meaning the commission would not have to place them on a ballot before enacting them.

Instead, if residents oppose them, they would have to present a petition containing names totaling 5 percent of the number of voters in the last general election to initiate a referendum. They would have 30 days to collect the names.

Cooper said the commission hopes to vote on the increases early enough to give residents time to challenge the tax increases, if they wish to, before early June.

“We need to make it clear that the only alternative is a property tax increase,” she added.

The commissioners will vote on the tax increases during a special meeting April 26, during which they also will consider issuing gross receipts tax revenue bonds to fund building an annex to the county jail.

In other business, Ashley asked commissioners to consider adopting an ordinance forbidding the Curry County clerk from issuing same-sex marriage licenses. But, after some discussion, he said he would ask for a resolution instead.

County Attorney Stephen Doerr said he has been unable to find any statute that gives counties authority over the rights of individuals getting marriage licenses. Statutes give the state the power to set the form of the license, he said.

Also, a county ordinance must have a penalty, either a fine or jail time, and it isn’t clear who should be charged under an ordinance forbidding same-sex marriage licenses, he said.

Since it isn’t clear the county could charge people applying for the license with a crime, an ordinance could prohibit the clerk from issuing the license. But, that could mean sending a clerk to jail, he added.

A resolution could express the commissioners’ opposition to same-sex marriage licenses, but would not require enforcement actions, he said.

Ashley said it was still his desire to pursue an action against same-sex marriages.

“Just about every issue we deal with is tied to the breakdown of the family and this has a direct correlation,” he said.

Commission Chairwoman Kathrynn Tate said the state attorney general already is looking into developing a state law against same-sex marriages and courts are considering an injunction against the Sandoval County clerk, who has issued the licenses.

The commissioners unanimously voted to consider a resolution opposing same-sex licenses at their next meeting.

They also gave tentative approval to the North Lake subdivision of developer Sid Strebeck, subject to approval of its final plat.

Doerr said the commission’s road committee has voted not to accept the subdivision’s roads for county maintenance and the New Mexico State Engineer has withheld a positive opinion from the subdivision, because it does not have the 40-year water supply that office requires.

Project engineer Chad Lydick said prospective buyers will be informed their domestic wells would only have an estimated life of 25 years.

The commission also approved letting the sheriff’s office apply for a federal grant that would pay for two police officers at county schools.