Acting just in time to make the June 28 deadline extension, Valencia County Commissioners passed a revised preliminary budget Wednesday providing a $2 across-the-board raise for sheriff’s deputies.

Funds for the raises are not coming from general revenue within the budget but from the 1/8 cent gross receipts tax passed in September.

“We need the $2 across-the-board raise,” said Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Mark Lujan. “We need to stay competitive, or we are going to lose people. These are seasoned veterans. We cannot afford to lose these people. We are the lowest paid law enforcement officers in the county.”

Five deputies have left the force in the past year β€” some going to Albuquerque, where they can make $3 more per hour for a similar position, said Lieutenant Gary Hall.

The starting salary for a certified officer in Valencia County is $10 per hour, compared to $13 in Albuquerque.

Commissioners found a way to provide partial funding for the 4-H and the Extension Service by taking $35,000 from the $172,000 budgeted for the Sheriff’s Department.

Commission Chairman Al Padilla, along with commissioners Helen Baca, Gary Daves and Frank Pando, voted in favor of funding the 4-H program until the end of the year. Commissioner Alicia Aguilar was not present for the vote.

“We needed to get this budget in,” said Padilla. “I would have liked to have seen a full budget approval.”

The preliminary budget now goes to the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) in Santa Fe. County Manager James Fernandez expects that the official budget approval will come next week.

Padilla, Baca, Daves and Pando voted in favor of passing the budget, which included the revisions made on Wednesday. Aguilar, visibly upset with the proceedings, left before the final vote.

“We followed our county manager’s recommendation, and I have to praise him and the employees for a job well done,” Padilla said.

Commissioners spent months attempting to find ways to lower the amount of money spent on the jail contract with Cornell Companies Inc. However, it was not possible to cut $1 million from that contract.

“There’s no magic,” Daves said. “Housing juveniles costs money. Cornell didn’t offer us any magic to save money.”

County employees currently on a 32-hour work week will have to wait until 2003 before budget reconsideration could possibly put them back on a full-time week.

However, Valencia County Assessor Beverly Gonzales received commission approval to allocate hours to the 15 employees currently within her department from those employees who have left or retired. Distributing the hours from five vacancies will bring the remaining assessor employees back to 40 hours, Fernandez explained.

According to the new ruling, other county department heads would also be able to allocate hours from vacant positions to remaining employees. However, that situation does not currently exist for other departments.

“I hope we can re-assess the budget in the last of December, so we can get our employees back to 40 hours,” Padilla said after graciously thanking the department heads and public for their input.

“We realize it is not a perfect document, but it does allow us to meet the 3/12 requirement mandated by the Department of Finance and Administration,” Fernandez said.

The DFA requires that the county maintain a 3/12 cash balance of its budget. The submitted budget meets that requirement with an estimated ending-cash fund of $1,657,460.

Fernandez expects the final budget to be in by July 30.

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Bruce Warren