Published: 2:18 pm, Sun. May. 28th, 2017Updated: 1:56 pm
In the ears of the private citizens in attendance, two voices emerged clear over the din the Eddy County Commission’s special meeting Thursday in Carlsbad became: One was saying, “Let the people have more input;” the other, “We’ve heard enough.”
Assuredly, the commission had reasons for making that rather blunt latter statement. They were seeking three separate additions to the county’s Gross Receipts Tax rate, additions that were passed and will now see Artesia’s GRT, or sales tax, jump from 7.8125 percent to 8.1458 effective Jan. 1, 2018.
That rate will become the highest in the southeastern portion of the state and the fifth-largest in the southern half, which includes tourist destinations such as Ruidoso and Las Cruces.
Artesians were, unsurprisingly, less than pleased.
The board pointed out, more than once, the Artesia City Council has had its own hand in bringing the community’s GRT rate close enough to 8 percent for the county’s action to push it over the edge. The funding the tax increases will generate is necessary to help keep Eddy County afloat as it continues to reel from the downturn in the oil and gas industry, the board said, and it made assurances any of the GRT increases passed – including the one-eighth of 1 percent implemented in 2015 – could be rescinded at any time, should the commission deem revenue had sufficiently rebounded.
But according to citizens in attendance, the board also came upsettingly close at several points in the meeting to making another reason for refusing to postpone its votes high on the list: It was simply tired of listening to angry constituents.
And that impression, they said, is likely to stick with them longer than the effects of the increases themselves.
One-Twelfth to Patch the Safety Net
The first of the three proposed tax ordinances considered Thursday by the commission was a one-twelfth of 1 percent GRT increase that would be dedicated specifically to the county’s Safety Net Care Pool (SNCP) payment.
The SNCP is a fund that reimburses hospitals for uncompensated care, such as that provided to indigent patients. That program was previously funded by the state but is now the responsibility of the counties.
It’s just one of a number of unfunded mandates with which the state has saddled counties since it, too, began feeling the rippling effects of the oil and gas crisis. It’s become accepted – if certainly not understood – since the budget woes began that New Mexico will continue to cut and claw back wherever it can within counties and municipalities as it seeks to right its own ship.
There was essentially no direct objection heard regarding the one-twelfth, and it passed, 4-1, with Commissioner Jon Henry of Artesia dissenting, based predominantly on the fact he objected on principle to all of the increases due to his belief the county had not done enough to educate the public on the need for the hikes.
That ordinance’s passage alone would have gotten the meeting off to a tame start; but some of the commissioners and department heads elected to make their stances on all three increases clear from the onset, and it left little doubt, citizens said, as to what the outcome would be.
It became quickly evident that county representatives had heard the majority of their public comments in the six days since the special meeting was announced from Artesia residents, and from there, the meeting took on a bit of an Artesia-Carlsbad football rivalry feel.
In presenting figures that showed the three increases would raise sales taxes in the county to 71 cents on $100, county manager Rick Rudometkin acknowledged the fact Artesia’s rate would subsequently surpass 8 percent.
“Going over 8 percent is kind of this magic number where it kind of will break you for people either shopping or not shopping in your community,” Rudometkin said. “That is a concern for the people in Artesia, and I understand why.”
Rudometkin proceeded to point out that 50 cities in the state have GRT rates about 8 percent, while assistant county manager Kenney Rayroux continued to stress the need for the additional taxes.
“There’s been a lot of commentary about we’re not cutting back, we’re not doing this, we’re not doing that – the fact of the matter is, we have 28 frozen positions, so in essence, we’ve laid 28 personnel off already. From my viewpoint, we’re at a point where if we cut back any more, we’re going to start cutting services.
“This upcoming budget’ll be the second year in a row that the sheriff’s department has been denied new vehicles, coming up on the second year that we denied public works equipment. We’re sitting on those watching our deferred maintenance go up.”
Artesia was also a part of the commentary of public works director Ray Romero and facilities director Brian Stephens.
“Last I heard, it is Eddy County, it isn’t Artesia County or it isn’t Carlsbad County,” said Romero, referencing calls his department receives from county residents regarding the condition of roads. “We went this route before with the two-eighths GRT; we had some officials come up, state their case, and it didn’t pass, so if any of those officials are here this morning, please come up with your checkbook or some sort of cash stating that, you know, we promise this.
“Right now, my department needs a lot of stuff. Infrastructure, we’re talking about industry coming in, if they can’t get into our roads, it has a dire effect on Eddy County.”
Stephens stated his belief that people speaking against the tax increases are not aware of the county’s statutory requirements on facilities regarding such expenses as utilities, custodians, maintenance and lawn care.
“That detention center isn’t in Artesia’s backyard,” Stephens said. “That district courthouse isn’t in Artesia’s backyard. It’s in our backyard, it’s our responsibility.”
Ronnie Barron of Artesia expressed concern over the tone the meeting was taking in regard to North Eddy County and also questioned the county’s use of funds prior to the oil and gas downturn.
“What happened to the millions and millions of dollars when it was $80 to $100 a barrel?” Barron said. “Something should’ve been put back to take care of things, and whether it was or not… I don’t guess it was, because we’re begging for money now.”
Artesia returned to the forefront, however, during what Commission Chairman Stella Davis warned would be her non-“politically correct” statement.
“For everyone from Artesia here today that’s come to protest this board’s intentions, I have this question for you: Where were you when the City of Artesia continued to install 19 increments of GRT? Did you know they were being installed over a period of years that has brought your GRT rate close to 8 percent?
“I think it’s ironic that you are all here opposing the county proposed GRT when your city leaders, along with Mayor (Phillip) Burch, quietly installed the GRTs without public outcry or advertisement. Yes, by the county’s installing these three increments, it will bring Artesia’s GRT to over 8 percent. But you should be looking to your community leaders and asking why they had the need to install 19 GRT increments.”
Davis said anyone believing the county’s tax increases were unnecessary should “walk in our shoes” in the face of unfunded mandates and other actions taken by the state.
“Mayor Burch and citizens of Artesia, I for one am tired of this board being accused of mistreating your city and residents, and misspending money,” Davis continued. “The truth is, North Eddy County has always been treated fairly and equitably. Artesia has received far more from the county than the City of Carlsbad.”
Davis said the county does not charge the city landfill tipping fees amounting to approximately $600,000 annually and also referenced the community’s Department of Motor Vehicles office and other county satellite offices.
“The county is not required to provide all these things,” Davis said. “You have a nice DMV office, you have the health office, you have satellite offices for the clerk and the assessor so your people don’t have to come down here. It’s a convenience, but it costs money. And we can cut costs; we can close all those offices.
“We don’t choose to, but if we had to, that’s one thing we could look at, and I don’t think that would be fair to the people of Artesia, but it may come down to that if we continue to be hammered constantly. It gets very tiring. It seems it’s OK for Artesia to raise taxes but the minute we say something about taxes because we need it, all heck breaks loose, and I’m frankly tired of it.”
Davis said the county cannot continue to depend on the recovery of the oil and gas industry, and stated again that she was tired of being “hammered” with comments opposing tax increases.
“I can tell you, people in Artesia, if this continues, there will be a time where we’re gonna have to look up there to see where we can cut,” Davis said. “You want cuts? We can make the cuts. We’ve cut as much as we can down here, but we can look up there.
“And I’m not threatening, I’m just telling you a fact – that it’s going to happen. And it just irks me no end, what’s good for Artesia is fine but when Eddy County is trying to do something, we get hammered.”
Commissioner Susan Crockett also expressed frustration, stating she had received several calls and emails of a personal nature.
“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but it’s the threatening ones,” Crockett said. “To all of you that have sent those threatening emails, that called my boss, that talked to my parents, have some class, show some class. And you all know who you are. Some of you are sitting in this room today, too.”
Crockett said the commissioners do what they can to lobby Santa Fe against the state’s actions but said those who “are constantly hammering us” would do better to direct their attentions to the state legislature and governor.
“Having these hearings for GRT is kind of like being the parent of a teenager,” Crockett said. “People want to tell you and your teenager wants to tell you what’s right and wrong, but as a parent and a county commissioner, we’re the most informed. We’re the ones that sit in these meetings, we’re the ones to ask the tough questions of our county manager, of our department heads, we get all of the reports.
“Unfortunately, we can’t get all that out to the public. We just can’t. We try, we try the best we can, but just like being the parent to a teenager, you have to make tough decisions and you have to hurt their feelings because you make those tough decisions based on your knowledge.”
Henry, meanwhile, said he did not, in fact, feel the commission had done enough to get information to the public regarding the increases and said the board’s focus on Artesia was unnecessary.
“I appreciate all the emails and phone calls I’ve received over the last few weeks,” Henry said. “I personally haven’t had any threatening ones.”
“You’re from Artesia, so…” Davis interjected.
“That’s a great statement,” responded Henry. “I am from Artesia, and I’m extremely proud to be from Artesia. It’s a great city. And so far, it seems like we’re a county against Artesia at this point, because everything Artesia says, we’re wrong. And I think that’s disappointing, because that’s not the way we should look at this at all.”
One-Eighth for the ‘Time Bomb’ Detention Center
Another thing on which the commission and most in attendance were in agreement was the need for additional funding for the Eddy County Detention Center (ECDC).
ECDC was referred to several times as a “money pit” that had undergone several improvements and expansions but that is in need of immediate maintenance and eventual replacement.
Some citizens questioned after the meeting why its replacement rather than improvements and expansions hadn’t been considered when county finances were plentiful.
“Back in the early ‘90s, the first time the county tried to pass a bond for the jail it didn’t pass,” Davis said. “The second time, it passed, but it didn’t get built to the size that it probably should’ve been back then, but in hindsight, that’s the way it is, and money was tight again then.”
ECDC Warden Billy Massingill told the commission the facility’s average population in 2016 was 305, fluctuating at times to roughly 335 when inmates repeatedly bond out and end up reincarcerated.
Chance Chase, vice president at Mack Energy Corp., addressed the commission, expressing concern over the fact no sunset clauses were included on the two one-eighth increments up for consideration.
“You reassured us a second ago that y’all have the ability to take away this GRT,” Chase said. “But that’s not known to the public. There’s no reassurance.”
Chase told the board the lobbying group with which he is involved would be happy to help the county organize its efforts in Santa Fe and was also available to help the county put together visual explanations of the proposed increases to help the public better understand.
“If people see it, they understand it better,” Chase said.
“I have always said it would be amazing what we could do if the cities and county worked together as one, and a lot of times we don’t have that, and I think it would behoove us all to get together,” said Davis. “But to say we’ve not explained? We’ve explained and we’ve explained and we’ve explained, and all people are seeing is you’re going to put in a GRT.
“There is a reason, and it would be really nice if we all worked together, cities and county, and found solutions and moved forward, and I think this is a good lesson for all of us.”
Burch, however, refuted the assertion that the county desired cooperation with its municipalities.
“The budget process that the commission went through really wasn’t very transparent,” Burch said. “There was no invitation to participate, there was no input requested for those that were going to be impacted, the cities, the nonprofits, the other agencies. So now we have a budget that’s very harmful to some and very beneficial for others.
“There were no town hall meetings to advise the public. There’s been no discussion out in the public of why $12-$14 million are needed at this time. At a point where the economy of the year 2017-18 is being projected as much better than the economy of the current year, why do we need to continue more spending.”
Burch also took exception to the previous comments leveled at Artesia and its council.
“Artesia was kind of cast as uncooperative and a little gnarly, I guess,” he said. “Let me remind this commission – we have a public safety building that we built about six years ago. The county contributed $1 million to that $21 million facility. The sheriff houses his staff in North Eddy County in that facility and pays no rent. That was a mutual agreement; that was a cooperative effort.
“The substation which was mentioned; the property that the substation sits on was provided by the City of Artesia, and that was in a land swap with the county. It was a cooperative effort.”
Burch said the city offset its implementation of a two-eighths GRT increase by eliminating the city’s portion of property taxes.
Burch additionally told the commission that raising Artesia’s sales tax rate over 8 percent would “virtually destroy” the community’s opportunity to pass bonds and asked that votes on the two one-eighth increments be postponed “until the public input can be heard and you can meet with the mayors and the councils of the cities of Artesia, Carlsbad and Loving.”
“It is the least the commission can do to openly and transparently represent the cities and the residents of Eddy County,” Burch said.
Prior to the vote, Henry again petitioned the commission to take the time to better explain to the public exactly how the funds would be used to improve ECDC.
“We don’t have those numbers, and without those numbers, I think enacting a tax today which doesn’t even take effect till January… we can postpone this a month or two, we can have these discussions,” Henry said. “People are just afraid because they don’t see where it’s going.
“Two more months of information and help, maybe a couple of hearings where we can present your case to (the people) and show them, ‘Here’s the pit that we’re dealing with, here’s the problems we’re dealing with, here’s what we need to fix it,’ maybe then they come on board and say, ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’”
Davis, however, said in her mind, the commission had learned a “valuable lesson” from its 2015 GRT hearings.
“We drug that out for nine months,” Davis said. “We explained ourselves to death, and I’m getting angry. We explained ourselves to death on this. We went out to organizations, had it in the paper, and nobody got it. They just saw ‘taxes,’ and it doesn’t matter – when you use that three letter word, ‘tax,’ is just drives people crazy.
“The jail is a time bomb waiting to happen. We have to start doing something now.”
In response to questions regarding the county’s reserve funding, Davis said it wouldn’t be prudent of the county to dip into those funds to address the needs at ECDC.
“I can tell you, most people, if they take something out of savings and they say, ‘Oh, I’ll put it back,’ you don’t get a chance to put it back because life happens and other things are happening, so therefore, that’s not going to get put back.
“We do not want to be in that position where we want to draw down our reserves. This one-eighth, it’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s going to buy us some time to look at how we can go about building a new jail and the facilities we need.”
The ordinance passed 4-1, with Henry dissenting.
One-Eighth for the General Fund
The final tax increase in front of the commission Thursday included one-eighth of 1 percent to benefit the general fund.
While the county managers stated the money would likely be used to address issues such as public safety and roads, citizens and officials who spoke against it said “likely” was a sticking point, with general purpose funds ultimately available to be used at the county’s discretion.
“Nobody knows where this money goes,” said Barron. “It’s kind of hard to convince the public if you don’t know where it goes.”
Barron also raised the issue of county employee salaries, saying a call placed to New Mexico Workforce Solutions placed Eddy County at the top in terms of pay.
“If you don’t have the money, that’s not the way to run a business,” said Barron.
“I am so tired of hearing about our county employees and what they’re getting paid,” said Davis. “Give it a rest, please, because these employees deserve what they get.
“So they get good benefits – yes, they do, but that’s the reason we have these employees and the longevity of our employees; we don’t have huge turnover, but in order to enable them to continue doing the job that they’re doing, we need to give them the tools, and right now, it’s been really difficult to give them the tools. So I think this one-eighth will enable them to work smarter and work better.”
“If word gets out in the community that we’re going to start laying off or we’re going to start cutting salaries, people aren’t going to want to come work for one of the best places to work in the county, and that is huge to me,” said Crockett. “Employee retention and keeping employees is a big deal.”
Henry stated that while the one-twelfth increase was specifically dedicated to the SNCP and the first one-eighth to ECDC, the fact that the general purpose increase had no clear usage outlined pointed above the others to a need for public hearings.
“As commissioners, we’ve always said we’d like to hear from the cities, and the City of Artesia is willing to sit at the table with us and at least look at some of this, and I think we should do that before we pass this one,” said Henry. “I really again implore we at least have public comment, have open meetings in Artesia and Carlsbad, because I think this one really, really gets people going.”
Commissioner James Walterscheid agreed that with intentions for general purpose funds not clearly defined, additional explanation to the public would be beneficial.
Davis and Wood disagreed.
“How much more can we get kicked to the curb if we keep postponing and keep postponing,” said Davis.
“The phone calls and emails I’ve gotten the last two or three days, I don’t know if I want to endure another three months of those or not,” said Wood. “The 33 cents on $100 I don’t think is going to close a business’ door. I go to Ruidoso a lot and the GRT up there is over 8 percent, and I buy stuff up there, but I don’t see a dime’s worth of difference… I don’t even notice it.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m prepared to put this thing to bed today and be done with it.”
Carlsbad business owner Sandi Wilkie also urged the commission to better indicate its intentions for the funds, saying the people of the county have lost their trust in the board.
“Input should always be not only welcomed but sought after,” Wilkie said. “The problem the citizens have is not about pennies on the dollar. This is an issue of trust, and the citizens do not trust the county government.
“I’m not really sure how you win back our trust, but I do know that taxing without proper representation is not the way.”
Henry motioned to delay the vote until after public hearings could be held. That motion failed 2-3, with Davis, Crockett and Wood dissenting. The motion to pass the increase passed 3-2, with Henry and Walterscheid dissenting.