SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — It will take three to four weeks to complete an audit of a troubled New Mexico border town and determine whether the state should take the unprecedented step of overseeing the financial management of the community, state officials said Monday.
Gov. Susana Martinez and State Auditor Hector Balderas made the announcement as Sunland Park’s acting police chief was arrested on charges of bribery and conspiracy. The community of about 14,000 in southern New Mexico is near El Paso, Texas, and the border with Mexico.
The Republican governor and the Democratic state official said they shared a sense of urgency in dealing with widespread problems in Sunland Park, ranging from missing records to possible violations of state law governing city purchases, contracts and travel reimbursements to government officials.
“It’s a big mess down there,” said Martinez. “New Mexicans deserve better than this.”
Besides the city’s financial problems, eight current and former officials are facing criminal charges for various alleged political schemes, and the police chief is the latest to be arrested.
Sunland Park’s mayor-elect, Daniel Salinas, and the city manager have been accused of trying to force an opponent out of the mayor’s race by secretly recording him with a topless dancer and threatening to release the video.
Prosecutors contend that acting Police Chief Luis Monarez got his job in exchange for a political favor for Salinas, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported (http://bit.ly/GzBbTE ). Monarez allegedly persuaded his sister not to run against a Salinas ally in a city council race, according to Assistant District Attorney Scot Key.
New charges were brought against Salinas on Monday in connection with the latest scheme.
Balderas said his staff spent several days in Sunland Park interviewing city personnel and gathering documents. Auditors in Santa Fe were reviewing the material and preparing a report that will include a recommendation to the governor on whether the state should step in and run some city operations.
Under state law, the Department of Finance and Administration can suspend local officials and take over their duties if an audit finds fraudulent misuse of public money, embezzlement or violations of state financial regulations. However, the state has never used that law to assume part of a city’s operations, according to Finance and Administration Secretary Tom Clifford.
For the administration to suspend a government official, Martinez said, auditors must be able to pinpoint what city administrators or elected officials caused the problems.
Balderas said the arrest of current and former city officials has complicated his work and “created an administrative instability” in the city.
“We have encountered an overwhelmed staff that is left … to deal with the financial operations of a city that is already in financial disarray,” said Balderas. “The city’s lack of certain financial records, the breath of allegations concerning the finances and the problems across multiple departments creates significant hurdles and challenges for auditors.”
The city has no inventory of its assets, including vehicles, computer and equipment, Balderas said. There’s also incomplete payroll and personnel records, a lack of detail about purchase orders and contracts that justify governmental services and a lack of supporting documents for travel reimbursements and water utility operations.
“There have been incorrect payments to city councilors and elected officials,” said Balderas, declining to provide details.