By Tony A. Archuleta
Sierra County Manager Bruce Swingle last week led the way in recognizing county employees for their dedicated service and hard work.
Swingle – at the Wednesday, Oct. 22, special County Commission meeting – asked county employees in attendance to stand up and be recognized. Initiating a round of applause, he noted kudos go out to each and every county employee.
For the time being, though, county employees will have to make do with praises, as opposed to raises.
The county manager, addressing “Salary Study” under new business, said the countywide pay rate is lagging far behind other counties in New Mexico.
“No (county) employee is overpaid and, in many cases, they’re grossly underpaid for their positions,” he said.
Swingle said it will take a $330,000 budget increase to bring salaries up to par, and that doesn’t include the DWI Prevention Office and Sierra County Regional Dispatch Authority staffs.
Add DWI Prevention and SCRDA, and that figure jumps to $411,000, according to Swingle.
The regional dispatch center is counting on passage of a quarter-cent gross receipts tax during the Nov. 4 General Election to buoy its financial prospects.
Swingle said the county’s GRT tax rate of 6.3125 percent is currently in the “midrange” for New Mexico counties.
A proposed 1/12th of 1 percent (.09375) GRT increase (Safety Net Care Pool) to cover healthcare related expenses locally, which was tabled by the commission Wednesday, would leave the county with the fourth highest rate in New Mexico at 6.6875 percent.
If the SCRDA tax and another quarter-cent GRT increase benefiting South Central Regional Transit District in Sierra and Doña Ana counties both pass in November, it would give Sierra County the highest tax rate in the state at 7.28 percent, according to Swingle.
The problem with all this tax revenue is that only $300,000 of the current $800,000 is available for general purposes. The lion’s share of the funds is “pass-through” directed to the likes of Sierra Vista Hospital and Spaceport America.
The county also realizes about $2.7 million annually in property tax revenue, but the lack of a sales tax on food (a statewide mandate) and dwindling financial support from the federal government – including a Payment In Lieu of Taxes program that’s worth about $1.3 million yearly to the county, but whose future is in jeopardy – contribute to the financial straits.
It all adds up to a “very troubling environment we’re in,” Swingle told the commission, adding “very limited funds” are bound to lead to a reorganization of county staffing levels if the financial picture doesn’t change for the better, and soon.
The commission was reminded that, by state statute, the county is obligated to provide certain basic services like law enforcement and road maintenance, but the level of service isn’t spelled out, which led to talk of a “one-sheriff town,” or light to minimal road maintenance work.
Swingle presented the salary study to the commission minus the expectation of immediate action, and the commissioners pledged to address the issue in the near future, most likely when a new commission is on board in January.