As the 30-day legislative session gains momentum, 13th Judicial District Attorney Barbara Romo hopes her plea for additional funding doesn’t fall on deaf ears.
A year into her first term, Romo has asked legislators to consider a $1.44 million increase to the district’s existing $6.13 million budget.
If the requested new funding materializes, the district attorney will be able to add 15 additional positions throughout the district — two more prosecutors in each county, two additional support staff members in each county and another victim advocate for each county.
“That would be ideal,” she said. “I don’t know if I will get that, but if I can get even a little bit it will help.”
The cost of all district attorney’s offices in New Mexico are funded completely by the state. Each county within a given district has to provide office space for the DA’s staff. The 13th Judicial District is comprised of Valencia, Sandoval and Cibola counties.
Romo isn’t the first DA for the 13th to ask for a budget increase. Her predecessor, Lemuel Martinez, routinely pushed for more money, reminding the legislators the district was the fastest growing in the state, a situation that continues under Romo.
“When the FBI talks about the crime rates in the Albuquerque metro area, they’re including Valencia County and Sandoval County” Romo said. “I think there’s a misconception that means the city of Albuquerque, but really the statistics are coming from more than just Bernalillo County.”
Romo said her office deals with “spill over” crime from Albuquerque on a regular basis. To determine what crimes were part of that spill over, Romo reviewed cases being handled by the 13th and looked at the addresses of the defendants.
Numerous crimes in Valencia, Sandoval and Cibola counties were committed by people living elsewhere, and some of them have been high-profile cases.
“The textbook example is the killing of Officer Benner,” she said.
In 2015, Rio Rancho Police Officer Gregg Benner was shot and killed during a traffic stop. The suspect in that case was from Albuquerque.
“He had been committing armed robberies in Albuquerque. The only reason he was in Rio Rancho was to commit another one, because it was too hot for him in Bernalillo County,” Romo said. “When people say, ‘We’re going to reduce the crime in Albuquerque,’ I don’t think they really realize that means more than just the city.”
Prosecutors in the 13th Judcial District carry an average case load of 200 cases a year, Romo said. From July 2020 to the end of 2021, the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office handled more than 3,200 violent crimes. In Valencia County alone, there were 27 homicides, 732 domestic violence cases and 145 cases of child abuse.
Every district attorney is also asking the Legislature for a 5 percent increase to the base salary of all their attorneys, Romo said.
“To one extent or the other, we all have the same problem of recruitment and retention,” she said. “It’s hard to get people to want to come do this job. It’s a lot of stress, and when they can make more money either in private practice or even another government entity, it’s hard.”
Having a high-turnover rate is hard on the district’s budget, she said, and results in less effective prosecution.
“It not only affects the budget but the safety of the community,” Romo said. “I had a senator — not from my district — say, ‘Well, can’t you just prioritize your cases?’ We do prioritize our cases. However, it’s my constitutional duty to prosecute the crimes that occur in the district. I can’t tell someone whose house was burglarized, ‘I can’t prosecute your case because I’m already prosecuting this other burglary that came before you.’ I can’t do that.”
As Valencia and Sandoval counties continue to grow, unfortunately, with more people comes more crime, Romo said.
“It’s a trend that’s going to continue. I want to illustrate to lawmakers that the budget hasn’t grown proportionally to support the business of the district,” she said. “We really are at the point now where we’re not really able to provide good, quality prosecution.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.