FARMINGTON — San Juan County Commissioners approved the county's nearly $130 million budget Wednesday, but conversation focused on cutting services and, in particular, the possibility of closing the DWI Alternative Sentencing Division.
The alternative sentencing division operates a minimum-security jail and counsels those convicted of drunken driving. It served 462 people last year, and 98 percent of its clients complete the program. San Juan County has one of the highest DWI rates in the state, according to University of New Mexico studies.
"We, the county, we're in a tough time," Commission Chairman Jack Fortner said.
Cutting the alternative sentencing division's funding is a "real possibility," he said. A temporary tax increase — which the commission is expected to vote on in the near future — could give the county time to find other possible service cuts. But the tax is unlikely to pass unless constituents tell the commission it should, he said.
The tax would add 2.5 cents to every $20 spent by shoppers in the county and its cities. The proposed tax would be one-eighth of 1 percent on all gross receipts.
Fortner says he wants voters to tell their commissioners what to do.
During the meeting, the commissioners approved the fiscal year 2015 budget, which includes nearly $129.6 million in spending and an operating budget of nearly $100.7 million that is a little more than 5 percent below last year. But officials spent time discussing a budget buster passed by state lawmakers in the recent session.
County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the recently passed Senate Bill 268, which creates the "Safety Net Care Pool," bankrupts the county's indigent health care program, which is now known as the "health care assistance program."
"If we make no move at all, it will be a $6 million deficit" in the assistance program, he said.
Many New Mexico counties are rallying against the new law. The safety-net fund pays a percentage of health care providers' medical bills for services delivered to uninsured county residents, but it is unclear whether San Juan Regional Medical Center will receive any money from the fund for its uncompensated care.
The new law mandates that the county contribute about $3 million a year — or one-twelfth of 1 percent of its gross receipts taxes.
The county's health care program has been helping uninsured county residents pay medical bills, and health care providers pay uninsured claims. Earlier this month the county cut nearly in half the fund's reimbursement rate to find money for the safety-net fund payment. The rate was 70 percent. It is now 33 percent, an averaged Medicaid rate.
The proposed tax increase would yield an estimated $4.4 million in its first year to offset the health care program's deficit. Carpenter said the program would still be about $2 million short. He said another tax increase would be needed to erase the deficit.
Right now, he said, the alternative sentencing division is "exposed."
Commissioners celebrated the division's 20th year in operation after the meeting. There was cake, and officials and two people who received treatment at the division spoke of its importance in the county.
Twenty years ago, San Juan County's DWI rate was the "worst of the worst," Municipal Judge Bill Liese said at that celebration.
According to UNM studies:
In 1995, there were 1,352 DWI convictions in the county, which was the third most in the state.
In 1996, there were 1,277 DWI convictions, which was the second highest.
In 1997, there were 22 fewer convictions and the county still ranked second.
In 2009, 2010 and 2011, the county still had the second highest number of DWI convictions, with 1,769, 1,453 and 1,561 respectively.
Bernalillo County — with almost five times the population and number of licensed drivers as San Juan — consistently has the highest number of DWI convictions.
"Please, please tell your friends, tell your neighbors, tell anybody in the community that we need this program," Liese said.