By Marisa Demarco
— The Bernalillo County Commission didn’t vote on raising the minimum wage or tougher strip club regulations at its last meeting. Though the items were listed on the agenda, they were deferred. Commissioner Debbie O’Malley was out sick.
The Commission did vote unanimously to approve funding for phase two of the Southwest Valley Flood Reduction Project. Commissioner Art De La Cruz, whose district the project affects, said this would help ease the largest amount of nuisance flooding.
Commissioners also voted to approve matching funds for a grant from the federal government to the Metropolitan Detention Center as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. MDC Chief Ramon Rustin said the grant would put the jail on the ground floor of establishing solid policy, procedures and training to prevent sexual abuses between inmates and perpetrated by guards. Commission Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins asked how much the county pays out in settlements and legal fees related to such cases. Rustin said it can run in the millions.
Issue: Pay Check
Though it wasn’t voted on, the merits and drawbacks of raising the minimum wage were discussed. Mayling Armijo, director of the Economic Development Department, gave a presentation in which she questioned what the impact would be. “Would businesses shut down? Would there be layoffs? Would prices go up?” She said people who make minimum wage would see their monthly gross income go from $1,200 to $1,360.
The Commission considered embarking on a study of the effects of a wage boost.
Commissioner Lonnie Talbert said the unintended consequences have to be considered. The wage might not be the only thing that increases, he said—prices might go up, too. Though the economic impact might be initially good for a family, if that money is sucked back up by higher prices, the wage bump wouldn’t help.
De La Cruz said that though a study isn’t a bad thing, he was concerned about prolonging the process, leaving struggling families to suffer in the meantime. The study should consider the workers’ point of view, he added, not just local businesses. “This is going to be heavy lifting for this Commission, and it’s not going to be palatable for this Commission,” he said.
Bernalillo County has to make the decision based on good data, Commissioner Wayne Johnson added. Albuquerque didn’t have the discussion and didn’t consider data. The issue went right to citizens, who voted with a two-thirds majority to raise the wage in November.
Ultimately, all decisions on the issue were deferred.
Armijo pointed out that it’s easy to tell what most individuals want in this situation because the voters chimed in during the last election. Gas prices have gone up, and few people have seen raises.
Analysis of raising a minimum wage anywhere is largely inconclusive. Studies were done after Santa Fe’s wage went up, and results suggested few negative consequences. But Santa Fe is not Albuquerque or Bernalillo County. An unbiased study in the Duke City is not a bad idea, regardless of how it impacts the Commission’s decision.
Here’s a long-view question: Without mandates from the government or the voters, how can a society ensure fair pay for its lowest-earning citizens?
Issue: Methadone in Jail
The Commission had to decide whether to extend the contract to continue the Methadone Maintenance Program at the Metropolitan Detention Center. At the end of 2012, jail officials announced they were going to end the program. The company that provided the service had quadrupled its fee. MDC Chief Rustin said the jail would like to have a third party evaluate the program.
Rehabilitation experts attended the meeting to discuss the issue. Dr. William Wiese of the UNM Center for Health Policy said he was concerned the study was being framed around the question of whether to terminate the program. Rather, he said, a study should be trying to figure out what’s preventing the treatment from working at MDC.
Rustin said when he was hired in 2011, his first order of business was to review all of the programs in place at the jail and determine if its budget was being spent correctly. Given the recidivism of people on methadone maintenance at MDC, it didn’t seem to be a good investment, he said. The methadone program is different than the detox program, which is applied to about 700 inmates at any given time. They get medicine and have their vitals monitored every 15 minutes, Rustin said. The process takes about 10 days, he added.
One inmate on methadone was supposed to transfer recently to state prison, which doesn’t have a methadone program, Rustin said. So the court ordered MDC to keep him for an additional four months in its overcrowded facilities while his dosage was slowly tapered.
A study should look at the program and consider whether methadone withdrawal is worse than opiate withdrawal, he said, and how methadone compares with Suboxone.
Commissioners questioned Rustin cautiously and ultimately decided to extend the methadone program for four more months while a study is conducted. Talbert said a set of criteria for measuring the next four months had to be established, and he’d be looking for “facts and figures” when the time came to vote on methadone maintenance for good. De La Cruz said the Commission has to consider liability issues, too.
The disconnect between MDC and state prisons with regard to drugs and detox deserves some serious attention. Regardless of the outcome of the study, New Mexico’s incarcerating institutions need to find a common sense way to handle the problems addictions pose.
Jan Bray of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico said a drug policy study conducted by the league determined that addictions are recurring brain diseases that can’t be punished out of people. Treatment, Bray said, is cost effective: Every $1 spent on treatment saves taxpayers $12.
Rustin pointed out that methadone programs are not as effective when they aren’t coupled with counseling. “This community has made jail the cure for almost everything,” he said. “For instance, I’m the biggest mental health provider in the state.”
The next meeting is Tuesday, Feb. 12, at 5 p.m. in the Vincent E. Griego Chambers in the basement of City Hall. Dig through the agenda the preceding Friday at bit.ly/BernCoAgenda.