County: Blame jail for budget woes

By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ Staff Writer

Curry County commissioners on Tuesday adopted a $20.5 million budget that will cut the county’s cash on hand from $10.1 million to $3.2 million by June 2005.

County Manager Geneva Cooper said the fund drain has been caused mostly by increasing jail costs spread over a number of categories, including the cost to house inmates in other county jails, build a new jail annex in Clovis and pay for inmate medical expenses.

The projected jail expenses are only estimates, Cooper said, and county officials have no assurance their projected numbers are accurate.

“There are certain things in life you can’t plan for,” Cooper said. “Basically we’re at the mercy of other agencies.”

Cooper cited the cost to house inmates out of the county as an example of the problem. The county expects to spend $1.6 million next year to house inmates in other jails, more than the entire jail budget for 2000-2001. Cooper said the county paid $1.2 million in 2003-04, $140,000 in 2002-03, and nothing for the two previous years for housing inmates out of the county.

Cooper said the $1.6 million estimate is based on taking the average number of inmates housed elsewhere for the past three months and multiplying by 12, but if the number of inmates continues to increase the county will spend more than budgeted.

Adding in other expenses, the county budget calls for spending $3.4 million for the adult detention center and $432,000 for the juvenile detention center.

“We never had this problem with projecting our expenditures until we had this inmate explosion,” Cooper said. “It depends on what laws the Legislature passes and how many people the judges sentence to jail.”

Other major line items in the 2004-05 budget include:

– $1.2 million for jail remodeling

– $2.9 million in bonds for event center construction

– and $3.2 million for road construction, repair and maintenance.

While much of the budget discussion in previous meetings has centered on the jail, discussion at Tuesday’s meeting focused on an objection by commission chairwoman Kathrynn Tate to a smaller line item: Clerk Mario Trujillo’s plan to purchase a Chevy Suburban for $26,500.

“I don’t know how I can look the taxpayers in the eye and spend this,” Tate said. “I don’t think this is a good time to be looking at buying Suburbans when we are looking at raising taxes.”

Tate said after the meeting she was referring to an increased gross-receipts tax previously approved by the commission that will take effect in January.

Trujillo said the vehicle purchase would come from a special restricted fund generated by revenue from recorder’s office fees, not the general budget.

“I don’t see this as being a luxury,” Trujillo said. “I hope the general public can trust me to do my job and do what’s right for the public.”

Trujillo said the department’s existing vehicle is a single cab pickup that can’t be used to take groups of employees to out-of-town conferences, thus forcing the department to spend extra money for double mileage for employees to take a second vehicle to out-of-town meetings.

“The money is coming in, we have to spend it somewhere, and this is something we can use to save the county money,” Trujillo.

After that explanation, the county commission passed the budget on a 4-0 vote with Commissioner Tim Ashley absent.