Editor's note: San Juan County officials are considering many options to reduce an anticipated $6 million budget deficit. The Daily Times is examining some of those options — including tax hikes and layoffs — and the anticipated impacts in a three-part series. This first installment looks at proposed layoffs.
FARMINGTON — One way San Juan County can avoid a more than $6 million deficit in a program that helps uninsured county residents pay medical bills and reimburses providers for care delivered to the uninsured would be to eliminate 10 percent of its workforce.
That would be 70 jobs.
"There's probably 10 different ways that you could arrive at getting to the amount of money that you need to, in lieu of a tax increase," County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said.
Since Senate Bill 268 passed in the last legislative session, counties are required to pay one-twelfth of 1 percent of their gross receipts to a statewide fund — known as the Safety Net Care Pool — that helps the state's hospitals pay for uninsured care.
San Juan County's payment is about $3 million. And with other obligations, the county's health care assistance program would experience about a $6.04 million deficit in fiscal year 2016, according to county documents.
Commissioners will likely have to chose between cutting services, raising taxes or implementing a combination of both when they vote — and citizens need to tell their commissioners what should be done, Carpenter said.
"What do the citizens want?" he asked.
Since 2009, the county has eliminated 36 jobs almost entirely through attrition and cut $55 million from its total budget, Carpenter said. It now employs 677 employees, and further cuts would impact operations, some department heads have said.
Carpenter said citizens would feel the cuts if the sheriff's office, fire department and public works were reduced.
The sheriff's office roster listed 127 employees as of Wednesday. Laying off 10 percent of that workforce would generate almost $1 million, the greatest savings among all departments that could be cut, according to county documents.
Efforts to reach Sheriff Ken Christesen on Monday to find out about the specific impacts of those proposed layoffs were unsuccessful.
If 10 percent of the fire department's employees are laid off, business and home owners could begin paying higher insurance premiums, Fire Chief Doug Hatfield said.
More than 250 people in the department respond to fires, medical emergencies and other calls, but they are all volunteers, Hatfield said. Members of a 13-person paid staff train the volunteers, he said, sometimes four times a month.
"If they weren't being trained in the most modern techniques," he said, "there is going to be a potential for a larger property loss, on the fire side, or something that might effect life, on the EMS, extrication, (hazardous materials) side."
The Insurance Services Office — an independent agency that examines insurance risk — would rate the fire department poorly if its services were limited, causing premiums to rise, Hatfield said.
Volunteers will still respond to emergencies if the department is reduced, but those volunteers could be at more risk, he said.
Ten percent fewer employees in the department would save the county about $110,000, according to the documents.
Laying off 10 percent of the 86 employees in the public works and solid waste departments would save the county about $360,000, according to county documents, but its director, Dave Keck, said he would prefer to find a 10 percent savings elsewhere.
The solid waste department operates 12 transfer stations, three of which are in Shiprock, Upper Fruitland and Sand Springs. The Navajo Nation pays half of the three stations' operating expenses, Keck said.
If he had to make cuts, he'd suggest the Navajo Nation operate and pay the entire cost to operate the three stations, he said. This action could result in the loss of six positions saving the county about $210,000, according to county documents.
Keck said he would consider charging landfill fees. According to county documents, that would generate about $347,000.
He might recommend eliminate a 10-year-old program that has helped clean 875 citizen's yards, he said. This would save the county about $81,000, according to county documents.
But Keck would still need to save more money, so he said he'd consider laying off two more employees and reducing another program that chip seals pavement to help it last longer, he said.
But he's already reduced the pavement preservation program. Crews that were once sealing 45 miles of road a year are now sealing about 20 miles of road annually, he said.
Instead of improving roads, he said, crews would be patching their potholes.
"We've already cut into the bone of the department," he said. "We've been able to adjust to that, but we don't have any more flexibility any more."