Seven Hours in May: Interim Budget Brings No Salary Increase for County Employees

Seven Hours in May: Interim Budget Brings No Salary Increase for County Employees
Torrance County Government Offices, Estancia, NM - Todd Brogowski/Mountainair Dispatch

This time last year, the Torrance County Commission held an eleven-and-a-half hour session addressing the county’s interim budget and the use of ARPA funding before a feared clawback of federal funds. This year’s interim budget session was much shorter: just seven hours long.

Torrance County Clerk and 3rd District Torrance County Commission candidate Linda Jaramillo reported that the county sent out absentee ballots to voters. Jaramillo also noted that early voting had started in Torrance County polling places.

The meeting began with a public hearing. Across a Zoom connection, County Commissioners discussed implementing an industrial revenue bond policy with 1st American Financial Advisors, Inc., representative Rob Burpo. The policy’s goal would be to protect the county from loss if a contractor left a job incomplete. The County Commissioners deferred action on this matter until they could obtain more information.

The next major issue before the Torrance County Commission was a local reflection of a national problem, according to both the commissioners and Sheriff David Frazee. The Torrance County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) had lost multiple deputies to other departments or careers. Since the pandemic, law enforcement agencies have struggled to recruit and retain police officers. In the case of the Torrance County Sheriff’s Office, the recent loss of two deputies led to TCSO telling the Estancia Police Department that it could no longer support coverage of the graveyard shift.

Sheriff Frazee explained that he hoped to respond to the problem by creating two “Community Service Aide” (CSA) positions for commissioned, armed, but uncertified officers (meaning that the officers had not attended New Mexico’s Law Enforcement Academy). These two positions would address tasks that, Frazee explained, deputies did not like to do: court security, prison transport, and service of certain court documents (it does not appear that these roles will fully constitute “process server” positions). The County Commissioners unanimously approved creating these two positions. Frazee said that the county would give CSAs certification training before they would carry a firearm on the job.

The discussion of the interim budget reflected a belief in a weaker economy. Finance Director Misty Witt reviewed possible increases to county employee salaries in response to the increased cost of living due, in part, to inflation (the Social Security Administration has determined the cost of living increase to be a 3.2% increase). These salaries, statistically, represent the largest pool of employee salaries in the county, as the government is the largest employer. Witt presented the following options to the county commissioners:

  • A 3% salary increase across the board, representing a total increase in salaries of $204,856.00;
  • a $0.75 salary increase across the board, representing a total increase in salaries of $235,939.00;
  • A 4% salary increase across the board, representing a total increase in salaries of $273,142.00;
  • A $1.00 salary increase across the board, representing a total increase in salaries of $314,585.00;
  • A 5% salary increase across the board, representing a total increase in salaries of $341,428;
  • A $1.50 salary increase across the board, representing a total increase in salaries of $471,878.00;
  • A $2.00 salary increase across the board, representing a total increase in salaries of $629,171.00;

Commissioner Schropp spoke first on the options, saying, “Last year, we gave a general wage increase of $2.00 per hour, and this year, I believe all that would - that would be prudent would be a cost of living increase.”

Commissioner Schwebach agreed, saying that he believed that a cost of living adjustment would be a 3.5% increase in salaries, but also saying he believed that instead of a salary increase employees may prefer a pickup of PERA retirement contributions by the county (PERA refers to the Public Employee Retirement Association of New Mexico). The commissioners agreed on a 37% increase in matching contributions to PERA accounts for employees (which would cost nothing if an employee could not afford to make retirement contributions). They did not increase county employee salaries. Not increasing county salaries is inconsistent with trends seen elsewhere in the nation:

  • the Consumer Price Index has risen 3.1% for the 12-month period ending January 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • federal employee salaries have risen 5.2% for general pay scale civilian federal employees (Securities and Exchange Commission employees make more than this pay scale; the military makes far less than this pay scale)
  • surveyed private sector employers reported that they expect to increase employee salaries by 4% (the survey sampled 33,000 data points from employers in 150 countries)
Change in price in consumer goods, an indicator of inflation and the cost of living - US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Commissioners then turned to the question of increasing the salaries for future county commissioners. “I think it’s important for the public to know that [any salary increase] starts at the next election cycle,” Commissioner McCall said. The commissioners agreed to increase the salaries of future county commissioners by 6% ($2.00/hour).

A more complete breakdown of the changes outside of the scope of salary increases in the proposed interim budget is forthcoming (pending the special county commission meeting to resolve the matter of the interim budget).

The final matter before the Torrance County Commission was a revisiting of concerns regarding the Torrance County Fair Board and the Open Meetings Act. Since February 2024, County Manager Janice Barela, County Commission Chairman Schwebach, and County Commissioner Schropp have attended meetings of the Torrance County Fair Board and worked with members of the Torrance County Fair Board to address issues with Fair Board agendas that placed them in non-compliance with the Open Meetings Act, in response to public complaints regarding the Fair Board’s meetings. At this meeting of the Torrance County Commissioners, Torrance County Fair Board Vice Chair Johnny Perea spoke to the commissioners regarding their concerns. Perea challenged Schropp, stating that Schropp had told the press that he intended to dissolve the Torrance County Fair Board. Schropp denied this allegation. (It later became clear that Perea was referring to a statement made by Schropp in a recent article published in both the Mountainair Dispatch and the Edgewood Independent in which Schropp said that decisions that violated the Open Meetings Act would need to be vacated.)

After Schropp clarified that he did not say that the Fair Board needed to be dissolved, Perea accused Schropp of staring at him after walking out of the Fair Board meeting. Perea continued with an apparent threat of violence directed at Schropp, “I don’t know if I took it as you were trying to intimidate us. If you were trying to threaten us,” Perea said, “If that was an invitation, so to speak, if it was, please let us know. Because, I mean, either [Fair Board member Albert Chavez] or I would be happy to indulge you.”

The County Commissioners did not acknowledge Perea’s threat, and Schropp said that he attended the county fair board meeting due to public concerns regarding the Torrance County Fair Board and Schropp’s belief that the rule-making engaged in by the Torrance County Fair Board was “not being done with transparency.” Schropp continued, “If you were following the - complying with the - conditions of the Open Meeting Act, those people [who complained to Schropp] wouldn’t have been blindsided.”

Schropp said to Perea that he wanted to see the Torrance County Fair attract not only “ag people” but also those not interested in livestock competitions.

… [This] commission would like to see the fair grow and have a true county fair. Horse pulls on a Saturday night, … carnival rides, food, games, things that will attract [attendees]. As Commissioner Schwebach has said, we are an agricultural community, and a county fair is very much a part of that. But not all of the 15,000 people in Torrance County are ag people. So we can pull people in [but] in other ways. That’s not going to happen instantly, but that is my vision for the [fair]. And it’s up to you all to determine how, but transparency is going to ease the way. If all of the competitors can see a smooth transition and rules from year to year, you’re going to - we’re going to - attract participants, exhibitors, and competitors from outside Torrance County.

Schropp and Perea continued to speak for a few moments, during which it appeared that the two had resolved their concerns. Commissioner Schwebach told Perea that he believed that the Fair Board did not violate the Open Meetings Act based on what he witnessed at the February 13, 2024, meeting of the Torrance County Fair Board. Schwebach continued, stating he believed that the Fair Board’s choice to revisit rules adopted during meetings in which there were Open Meetings Act complaints helped avoid public outcry against the process. Schwebach encouraged Perea:

I respect what you guys have done. I respect what you’re doing. And I want to sit here and say that I would like to help facilitate in the future because, ultimately, you want participation [in County Fair Board meetings], but you want healthy participation, healthy ideas, healthy concepts to bring in to facilitate this fair. More volunteering. More help. I mean, I see that you guys put on way too many hours for me to do.

During the comment period, County Manager Janice Barela reported to the County Commissioners that the county had hired a new chief procurement officer, Kristin Saavedra, new emergency communications director, Selena Carroll, and a new facilities director, Richard Lesperance.

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