By John Finefrock
On June 16, Archuleta County Sheriff Rich Valdez asked the Archuleta County attorney for clarification on why he could not make hiring decisions for his department after the Archuleta County commissioners instituted a county-wide hiring freeze in April.
“Where can you as the board of county commissioners put a hiring freeze on the other elected officials?” he asked at the commissioners’ work session, adding, “As the elected officials, our budget is our budget, it’s been approved, we have that budget for the year … The question that we have, the concern that we have is, by the board of county commissioners not allowing us to fill certain positions, it’s basically dictating my budget because you’re not allowing me to make the changes within my organization as I see fit.”
In a phone call Wednesday, Commissioner Steve Wadley explained the rationale for April’s hiring freeze.
“The budget’s based on what we expect revenue to be and now with [COVID-19], certainly sales tax is gonna be down, to what degree we don’t know. Are people going to pay their property tax? Are values going to hold? We don’t know that either. I understand the elected officials’ frustration, but the three of us need to balance the budget,” he said, referring to the three Archuleta County commissioners.
In a text message to The SUN on Wednesday, Undersheriff Derek Woodman wrote that the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) had asked for permission from the county to hire an office manager, but County Administrator Scott Wall “would not authorize advertising externally” for the position.
“We could hire internally from existing county employees,” Woodman wrote.
On April 7, the three county commissioners unanimously approved a hiring freeze in the county with the exception of a few positions.
The language of the agenda item on the commissioners’ April 7 meeting agenda reads, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of a national or state mandated shelter-at home order, this item establishes a hiring freeze for all full-time positions in all departments in the County, with the exception of Dispatch and the Sheriff’s Patrol and Detention departments.”
The office manager is not within patrol or detention at the ACSO.
In a phone call Tuesday, Archuleta County Attorney Todd Weaver offered clarification on the county commissioners’ role in managing the budget.
“When it comes to budgets, the Board of County commissioners has the ultimate authority to adopt, amend, supplement and take away money, basically at their discretion, so long as it’s not an absolute abuse of power,” he said.
He added that instead of the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners amending every department’s budget at this time of economic uncertainty, the commissioners are taking a precaution by saying, “let’s hold on on replacing people.”
During discussion at the June 16 work session, Wall commented on the hiring freeze.
“When y’all voted on the freeze you said patrol, detention and dispatch would not be affected,” Wall said. “I think you made a very big decision to not jeopardize the safety of our peace officers … To me, it’s a temporary thing, but the morale of firing people because you over-hired, or you filled positions you didn’t have the money for is much worse than a freeze … The public sector has its weaknesses and benefits, one of the benefits is you usually have job security compared to working in the private sector.”
In the text message, Woodman offered an update on the sheriff’s office hiring of an office manager.
“We are promoting internally from our employees today. That will create a vacancy for our Admin position that is responsible for our Model Traffic Code. I will be asking to fill that position externally today,” he wrote.
The Model Traffic Code took effect in Archuleta County March 1.
Prior to the code taking effect, fines from violations issued by the ACSO would go to the state.
Now, under the Model Traffic Code, the money will be routed to Archuleta County’s general fund.
Woodman explained in a phone call Wednesday morning that the now-vacant administration position has the responsibility of processing those citation payments.
Woodman has estimated the new code will bring in about $160,000 annually to the county.
Valdez explained in a phone call Tuesday that he was seeking clarification from Weaver on June 16 about the county commissioners’ legal authority to prevent him from hiring as he sees fit.
He said as of Tuesday, he still had not received that clarification.