County Manager Michael Hawkes updates the Socorro County Board of County Commissioners.
Cathy Cook | El Defensor Chieftain

 

Businesses based in Socorro County can apply for grants to help recover from COVID-19. In other business, county commissioners were split on dissolving a financial advisory committee that the county treasurer uses for advice on investment decisions.

The county commissioners heard an update from County Manager Michael Hawkes on the grant application process during their most recent commission meeting. Grant applications are available at the county manager’s office. The commissioners have put $500,000 of American Rescue Plan funds toward the grant program. Business owners can qualify for financial support for a wide range of issues.

“If you’ve got a business in Socorro County and you’ve had issues with COVID-19 and you’ve had revenue loss, can’t hire workers, you want to make your business less susceptible to COVID-19, all of those things,” said Hawkes.

In a separate matter, in a three to two vote, the commission eliminated a financial advisory committee that had been delegated the commission’s authority to veto the county treasurer’s investment decisions.

The commission will once again have that responsibility and will now serve as a financial advisory board for the treasurer. The commission still has no power to modify county treasurer decisions, and the treasurer is still responsible for determining how to deposit and invest county funds.

County Treasurer Rose Mary Rosas said she believed dissolving the financial advisory committee would be a disservice as members of the committee hold “intimate working knowledge” of the county’s finances.

The financial advisory committee met weekly, more often than the commission meets. The advisory committee was created because the county was having issues giving raises to employees, said Commission Chairman Manuel Anaya, and since its creation, the county has been able to give two 5 percent raises to county employees. Anaya was also a member of the advisory committee and offered to step down when Commissioner Glen Duggins informed him that the county policy did not include a commissioner sitting on the advisory committee.

Commissioner Joe Gonzales made a motion to keep the advisory committee and simply adjust the policy to officially allow a commissioner to be part of it, but his motion failed.

Duggins pushed for dissolving the financial advisory committee and said he wanted every commissioner to have a say on the treasurer’s investment decisions. Commissioners Craig Secatero and Ray Martinez also voted to dissolve the advisory committee.

Duggins is also frustrated that the county has moved some of its investments into a fund in Santa Fe, the New Mexico Local Government Investment Pool (LGIP), and out of CD accounts at Socorro-based First State Bank. The county’s $2 million general fund is still in an account at First State Bank, and the county uses credit cards issued by the bank and pays approximately $18,000 in annual fees to the bank.

The county has $9.1 million invested with LGIP. County Finance Director Sammie Vega-Finch said LGIP does not invest in high-risk investments, only US securities and government agency securities, and that while not insured by FDIC, it is 100 percent collateralized.

“If you think pulling $9.1 million out of a poverty-stricken town doesn’t hurt, well sell that to someone else, cause I’m not going to buy it,” said Duggins.

Treasurer Rosas said she sees the investment in LGIP as the safest, most liquid and highest yield investment for Socorro County.

“As an agency implemented by our taxpayers to maintain public services, we should not be sacrificing our income to support said services to favor a private business,” said Rosas. “Local government is not wealthy and we struggle each year to maintain limited budgets. The answer to our problem is not to invest at a lesser return. The answer is to invest responsibly and in the safest place where our money is most accessible and where we receive the highest return.”

Vega-Finch said that in the seven months of fiscal year 2020 that the county had its money invested with LGIP, it made approximately $35,700 in interest, and if the funds had been left in the CD accounts at First National, the county would have made $12,369. If the treasurer had left the funds in the CD accounts, banking fees would have exceeded the interest income over a five-year period, said Vega-Finch. Hawkes said that without the investment funds, county employee raises would have been next to impossible.

The investment also allows the county to pull money out for the general fund more easily, as it is 30-day revolving, whereas the CDs required money to be left in the account for at least a year to accumulate interest.

 

Cathy Cook, El Defensor Chieftain