N.M. counties sketch spending wish list for 2024

County governments prioritize health care for public workers, building maintenance and salaries for elected officials

By: - January 4, 2024 2:59 am

The Lea County Judicial Complex in Lovington cost $62 million to build, said New Mexico Counties executive director Joy Esparsen. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

New Mexico’s county governments want state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session to allocate an additional $188 million, to pay for a variety of local government functions like public sector workers’ health care, new courthouses, jail operations and pay raises.

New Mexico Counties, a lobbying group for all 33 county governments in the state, outlined that the bulk of the requested money is set to go toward covering insurance costs for state employees.

The counties are asking lawmakers to set aside $149 million to cover a shortfall in the pot of money used to pay for state employees’ health care, New Mexico Counties executive director Joy Esparsen told lawmakers on the Revenue Stabilization & Tax Policy Committee.

Esparsen said counties were blindsided last year by bills from the state General Services Department for the deficit in the Employee Health Benefits Fund.

Some counties and cities sued the state over the invoices last summer after House Bill 2, the legislation setting out the state budget, called for local governments to pay one-time fees of $10.2 million for health insurance premiums and $299,100 for life insurance premiums, according to Eastern New Mexico News.

“We recognize that funds need to be solvent but we don’t have a voice in that discussion when those premium increases were waived,” Esparsen said. “We have commitments from several legislators that this is going to be an issue that’ll be discussed early on this session.”

Paying for courthouses

The counties want lawmakers to set aside $20 million each year for building and renovating state district courthouses.

Often, state district courts and county magistrate courts share space in what are called “judicial complexes,” but counties cover the cost of maintaining them, Esparsen said.

“This is something we’ve considered an unfunded mandate for many years,” Esparsen said. “We look at this as a much better approach to this as a shared revenue.”

The most recent state operating budget does have $23 million set aside by lawmakers for the Administrative Office of the Courts to cover these costs, the counties wrote.

$15 million of that was used to resolve a lawsuit between the Eighth Judicial District Court and Otero County.

The other $8 million is being distributed based on need across the state, the counties wrote. Various court officials asked AOC to use the money, but their requests totaled $22 million, Esparsen said.

Paying jail guards

Lawmakers passed a law directing the state to set up a special fund in 2023 called the Detention and Corrections Workforce Capacity Building Fund, to help counties recruit and retain jail guards, Esparsen said.

Now the counties are asking lawmakers to put $10 million in that fund, she said.

“We have detention centers that are operating at very concerning numbers of staff, and it’s a compounding problem — you have staff then that’s working multiple overtime,” Esparsen said.

People in state custody held in county jails

The counties are asking lawmakers to set aside $7.5 million that will reimburse county jails that detain people convicted of felonies who are sentenced to state prison, but are actually incarcerated in county jails.

According to the counties’ presentation, lawmakers created the County Detention Facility Reimbursement Fund in 2007 with $5 million, but the pot of money “diminished to less than $2.5 million over the next decade.”

Even though lawmakers restored it to $5 million in 2022, the counties wrote that it costs an average of $7.5 million to incarcerate state prisoners in county jails each year, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.

Administrative fees by state

The New Mexico Municipal League wants lawmakers to eliminate a 3% fee charged to local governments by the state Taxation and Revenue Department. They want lawmakers to make it based on costs instead of a flat fee.

Esparsen said it’s also a concern for counties. That 3% is unreasonable and not based on actual costs, she said. She said counties paid $26 million last year to collect county sales taxes, she said.

Fines and fees backfill

Mentioned in the counties’ presentation but not in Esparsen’s comments to lawmakers was a proposal for lawmakers to make up for the $1.3 million each year that was reportedly being raised by fees for traffic tickets and criminal charges imposed on top of the fines required by the state’s criminal laws.

Lawmakers tossed out those fees last year.

Firefighters and medics

The counties are asking lawmakers to find “a more sustainable shared” source of revenue to pay for emergency medical services.

That same day, the New Mexico Municipal League suggested lawmakers put 10% of health insurance premium tax revenue into the fund to pay for local EMS services’ supplies, equipment and vehicles.

Rep. Liz Stefanics (D-Albuquerque) asked Esparsen if the counties agree with the cities’ suggestion, and she said “absolutely.” She said the counties have met with the municipal league about the issue multiple times, along with the New Mexico Association of Chiefs of Police.

Transporting and extraditing incarcerated people

The counties are asking lawmakers to set aside $750,000 to reimburse them for moving incarcerated people around the state or extraditing them from outside the state, according to their presentation.

There’s already a fund in state law that allows the state to pay back counties for this work but lawmakers have never put money into it, Esparsen said.

Services for incarcerated people

The counties are asking lawmakers to increase funding for mental health care, medication assisted treatment, housing, job training and other services for people incarcerated in county jails.

The Reach, Intervene, Support and Engage Program is overseen by the Behavioral Health Services Division of the state Human Services Department. The group runs in a dozen counties across the state —  Bernalillo, Colfax, Dona Ana, Eddy, Grant, Lincoln, Luna, Roosevelt, San Juan, Sierra, Socorro and Valencia counties, according to the group’s presentation.

Neither the counties’ presentation nor Esparsen’s comments to lawmakers specify how much money goes into the program and how much more they want. More money “would provide sustainability and enable expansion” of the program, the counties wrote.

Electeds’ salaries

The counties are asking lawmakers to increase the salary cap for newly elected officials by 15%, and for their salaries to match the Consumer Price Index.

The counties wrote that an increase to the salary cap is imperative this year because it would affect any incoming elected officials who will take office in January 2025. The cap was last changed in 2018, they wrote.

Esparsen said 14 counties are at the cap set by state law.

“The reality is when you have a deputy that is making $40,000 to $50,000 more than the elected official, it doesn’t make it very enticing for them to run as an elected official, or to retain that institutional knowledge,” Esparsen said.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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