Grant County officials and county commissioners will hold a hearing Thursday to discuss the draft budget for the 2019/2020 fiscal year. Some new budget issues stand out over years past: money to fund a pay restructuring plan in the Sheriff’s Department; repairs and upgrades to Bataan Park; and concerns over lower local copper production that will almost certainly translate into a decline in future revenues for the county.
Treasurer Steve Armendariz gave the Daily Press a 10-year span of revenue the county has taken in from taxes on local copper mines and, while the general trend was up, every county official recognizes that is changing. Copper tax revenue is down over last year and expected see a sharp decline, even. Because the three Freeport-McMoRan-operated mines in Grant County are taxed based on the amount of copper that the mines produce each year, the mining giant’s first-quarter report released last month was cause for concern. “Copper tax revenue makes up roughly $2 million of the annual $12 million to $13 million county budget each year,” Armendariz said.
Worldwide, the company’s copper production is down and is expected to continue going down in Grant County mines specifically over the next two years, according to the company.
“We have prepared another flat budget based on stagnant revenue and it also takes into account declining copper production,” said Charlene Webb, county manager. “The county has budgeted for the same amount [of copper tax revenue] to be conservative — overall it is a very conservative budget.”
The Sheriff’s Department is expecting to make strides this year by restructuring the way it pays its patrolmen, detectives, court security employees, law enforcement administration and civil division personnel — money for which is in the draft budget. Lt. Mike Burns, public information officer for the department, said the new pay structure will help attract new deputies to the department as well as retain deputies who might otherwise leave for better pay elsewhere.
“We have high hopes that this is going to address a number of issues and will allow us to retain people with experience — including senior people who are eligible to retire,” Burns said. “And we need them to train our new deputies.
“Now we’ll have a starting salary to offer that is based on years of experience,” Burns said. “If we are going to invest in training new people, a lot of the cost of this is going to be offset by getting rid of the revolving-door effect we have now.” The department is down 10 deputies currently.
Commissioners, who must approve the final budget, seem receptive to the sheriff’s proposal, which Frank Gomez campaigned on when he was running for sheriff last year.
“It’s probably one of our biggest responsibilities,” said Chairman Chris Ponce, District 1 commissioner. “It’s public safety and that’s our number one concern.”
District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings agreed. “It’s essential that the Sheriff’s Department get funding for pay raises for deputies as proposed by the sheriff and the county manager’s office,” Billings said.
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards also supports the sheriff’s proposal for increased salaries. “I believe that the sheriff and the county manager have worked hard to arrive at a plan that will help the current situation without going overboard on spending,” she said.
“I think it’s also important to note that this kind of situation is often caused by years of inconsistent management decisions and then an unwillingness to accept the pain of fixing it,” Edwards said. “This proposal will be initially painful, but will provide the Sheriff’s Office with a tool to fix the problem now and prevent more problems in the future.”
District 2 Commissioner Harvey Salas said something needed to be done about the shortage of deputies, but that he wanted to reward all county employees. “I’ve been talking to Sheriff Gomez about this and I know they would be going into a stepped pay plan — I just don’t know if that will be enough.” Salas has asked for figures on giving everyone a dollar raise, in every department.
“Retaining employees in any organization is important and the Sheriff’s Department is no exception,” said District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne. “I am hopeful that Sheriff Gomez’s plan will slow the departure of deputies to other agencies so they can focus on patrolling and getting advanced training.”
Browne has additional ideas, including resuming funding to local libraries and putting money into outdoor recreation, which many see as Grant County’s most viable economic opportunity. “We need to start funding a countywide trails and open space plan,” he said. “We’ve gone as far as we can go with volunteer efforts, and we need to start tying things together into a seamless trails system linking our communities to each other, to the forest, and with the Continental Divide Trail.”
On libraries, Browne said county funding was only fair: “The libraries in Bayard, Gila, and Silver City provide services to all county residents but are only supported by the municipalities right now,” Browne noted. “They are important assets to our county, and I would like to see us support them financially.”
Salas, too, wants monies allocated for public projects — such as repairs at the popular, county-owned public event space, Bataan Park. “I want to be able to do some work on the pavilion ADA compliance — we basically need a ramp and parking area,” he said. “I want to make money specifically available for that.”
The county budget hearing includes public comment, and commissioners welcome the participation of Grant County residents. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 23, in the commission meeting room of the Grant County Administration Building, 1400 U.S. 180 E.
Geoffrey Plant may be reached at geoff@scdaily press.com.