Q&A: Budget biggest county battle

Curry County Manager Dick Smith works at his office Friday in the Curry County Courthouse. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)

Compiled by David Irvin and Ray Sullivan

Editor’s note: Dick Smith began as Curry County Manager in January after long time manager Geneva Cooper stepped down. In November, the Commission named Smith — former administrator of Plains Regional Medical Center — to the post. He is currently on a six month contract ending in June.

Q What do you see as the single biggest challenge this county is facing right now?

A I think planning. Where are we going? What do we need to do? How do you prioritize your projects if you don’t know where you are going? You just react to them as they come up. You have short term, middle term and long term. Well the short term is the budget and getting the jail situation under control. But we’ve got issues of roads and drainage and expansion and infrastructure.

Q From the standpoint of immediate budget issues, you don’t see bankruptcy as an issue for the county?

A I don’t. I might have if the prisoner situation hadn’t eased up some and had we not gotten the gross receipts tax increase. Bankruptcy is a little different than running out of money, because you are required by state law to keep (a quarter of the yearly budget) in reserve. So it’s not like tomorrow I don’t pay the bills.

Q And the state would come in and take you over?

A They can. There are counties that don’t meet those requirements today, and they are not taking them over, but they can. Interestingly enough, under state law, by statute the first thing you cut are what they call “county officials,” which are the elected officials and the county manager, you cut their salary.

Q What do you see as the greatest strength of this county, where it can really stand and do something good for the citizens and the residents?

A I think the dedication of the people who work for the county is the biggest strength. Obviously, economic development is a big help in the budget situation.

The jail

Q The financial situation, with the jail annex coming online soon, what’s that going to do the financial picture of the county?

A We’re hopeful that when that comes on board that we can bring all the inmates back from Texas. We believe on a marginal basis, we can take care of those inmates for less cost than shipping them out. So with the reduction in the number of inmates, we believe we can get a little relief on the county budget.

Q How many beds or cells will be in the annex?

A There are 27 single person cells and 12 barracks type. The isolation cells are for people who need to be isolated for their own good, who are either a danger to others or a danger to themselves. The barracks type are very minimal security, day-work type cells. The current detention center was designed in pods (with) cells with four bunks in it, but there aren’t any isolation cells. So if you need to isolate someone it takes a four-person cell to do that. We actually gain three bunks when we can put people in there who we can put in the general population. By taking an isolation out of there (the existing jail) and putting them in the isolation in the annex, we actually free up three additional (beds). There’s an efficiency issue of doing that also.

Q And that is a problem?

A It gets worse all the time.

Q What is the marginal difference between sending them out of town and keeping them here?

A It’s about $10 day (less to keep them in county). The other big issue is our population is down.

Q Why are the numbers of inmates down?

A I wish I could tell you one single thing. The District Attorney is up to staff. The public defender was at three and now they are up to six. The judges are helping us out by trying to keep people out. (They are) no longer assigning us state prisoners that should be going to the state. I do think they are getting things through the court system faster than they did at one time. I just think its a combination of all those things?

Q Do you see it going forward, or have you talked to people about the sustainabilty of the current numbers?

A Obviously that’s what I’m concerned about. Do we have a blip or do we have a trend? Even if we keep doing what we are doing now, and Clovis grows, will we see that creep up. If it’s a blip then we save a few bucks and then we’re right back where we were. If its a trend, how many years do we have? And from a strategic planing perspective, when do we need to be looking at a new detention center? Should we look at a regional detention center? The budget’s so strained right now, any relief we get, we’ll take it. Right now, every inmate reduction is $38 per day — and if you run that out its about $14,500 per year — that’s real money.

Q We also heard there may be a problem when the annex opens there may be a problem getting enough guards.

A We did pretty well when we did the pay raise, it helped with retention and helped with recruiting. We’ve got eight open positions, and right at this moment we have no applications for those positions. I can tell you, with the cheese plant opening, with call centers that will pay as much or more than we do, I think its just going to make our position much tougher.

Q When will the annex open?

A We’re hoping at the end of the month.

County finances

Q When we spoke before you talked about the differences in the business world and the world of government, and trying to narrow down where the cash flows are coming from. Could expand on that?

A In the business world there are three documents you use from a financial perspective to manage business; the balance sheet, the income statement and the cash flow statement. Those are your school board from a financial perspective.

Government doesn’t keep a balance sheet. Government is not concerned with building wealth, they are concerned with taking care of the needs of the community. So when you are building infrastructure you are not adding it on a balance sheet someplace. In business, how does your money come in? Well, whatever services you provide and sell, that’s how your money comes in. In this process it comes in through grants, gross receipts taxes, property taxes, capital outlay.

Q Other than the jail, you think fiscal management has been a strength?

A I look at all the numbers and I don’t see extravagance. There’s still some things we can do. We’ve just looked at our phone costs. By going to a countywide contract, we’re looking at as much as $10,000 per year in savings.

Open government

Q In last week’s commission meeting, (March15), you said you are committed to open government. Why do you think that is important?

A Well, because I am a citizen. I’m taxed. Here’s my point: I don’t think citizens only have the right to know, I think they have a right to participate in where their money goes.

Q That applies not just to commission meetings, but will apply to committees?

A That’s my feeling. And we are opening those up more and more.

Q So its your opinion that more should be open than less, and if there is a question you should err on the side of openness?

A Absolutely, that’s mine.

Q How are you going to determine what’s open and what’s closed?

A I think the nature of the business that’s conducted. When we meet on the jail committee we are talking about issues that relate to particular inmates, or things that could endanger someone if those things are brought up.

Q What does the Attorney General’s office say in relation to the content of what’s open and what’s not, and quorum.

A We never have a quorum if it’s not considered an open meeting. So no more than two commissioners can be that. The AG’s office gives you the opportunity to have committee meetings that are not open to the public, but you have to be very cautious what you do in those.

Q Requests made by citizens and the newspaper to the county for records, what is your policy on that? What do you think is appropriate or not appropriate?

A If it doesn’t concern a particular personnel issue, and that means the person is named, and its a privacy issue …. Obviously individual health care issues we’re not going to talk about. There’s going to be a very, very few cases when you have an incident in the jail that you have to be cautious about. (Also) pending and threatened litigation (won’t be open).

Future needs

Q Where are we on the event’s center?

A We’re trying to get down to the final set of documents, and get some bids on it so we know if we are even close on getting that thing done.

Q $185,000 is coming down from the state for off-site renovations for the district attorney’s office. Where would that renovation be?

A Right now there are a couple of places in town we are looking at. The most promising is the second floor of the post office building over on Gidding (Street). We’ve got the plans for it. They are working for us on numbers now. By the way, that doesn’t come close to paying for renovations for a space that big. We are looking for a ten year period at least for that. And we’ll be looking at a criminal justice building at some time down the road.

Q Where are roads on your priority lists (considering future developments in the county)?

A Roads have to be right up in the infrastructure plan. Roads almost have to be number one in the infrastructure planning. One thing we’ve found is, by putting in chipseal roads, over the long run it’s much less costly than to do a caliche road with the gravel. Caliche is the white clay we have a round here with some gravel on top of it. Chipseal, is a thin asphalt with gravel.

Q Would you also have a regional criminal justice center, sharing that along with a regional detention center?

A I think you could. (I haven’t seen one in New Mexico). The issues of security for the DA’s office particularly, are very acute. We’ve seen those cases really rise in terms of people going after the DAs or the ADAs. That’s the difference of the world we live in than when this courthouse was built.

Q When do you see that work beginning?

A That’s a five or 10 year project.

Q Starting?

A I think we have to start working on what’s it going to cost? Where do we put it? We have to look at (if) we can keep the jail populations down, or are we going to see a 2 or 3 or 5 percent raise per year? And when do we hit the limit on when we need something else.

The job

Q Is the job what you’ve expected, or have there been surprises you didn’t anticipate?

A I think it’s what I thought it would be. I think the issues are complex but they are solvable. I find one of the issues I was a little concerned about was people working together to solve things, and that’s been a very, very pleasantly positive experience.

Q You mean people in this office?

A Throughout the county, the elected officials, the county citizens and even the newspaper has been easy to work with.

Q Are you having fun?

A Yeah I am. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but at least you can teach him some things.

Q You are on a six month contract. It ends the end of June. What’s going to happen then?

A Next month I have agreed to talk to the commissioners then, because they needed some lead time. I think it depends on what they want to do. Right now I would look at extending that for at least another six months.