For the past few years, Bernalillo County commissioners have had their own pots of public money to pretty much use as they like — as long as it’s spent in “the public interest.”
However, unlike the normal appropriations process, each commissioner can dip into his or her $50,000 “discretionary” fund for pet projects or organizations without first getting buy-in from fellow commissioners or going through a competitive bidding process. Each commissioner also gets $10,000 for supplies, travel and other expenses.
Commissioners don’t usually use their credit cards to draw on the discretionary funds, though they have in some cases, such as Commissioner Art De La Cruz’s $1,200 purchase of books for kids to read over spring break this year. Usually, when commissioners request money from their discretionary fund for a project, the proposal is evaluated by the purchasing department to be sure it complies with the procurement code and benefits the public.
The county spends at least $1 million a year on social services. Most requests are evaluated competitively on ideas and qualifications.
De La Cruz says using the credit card is “more convenient” than the normal appropriations process. Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins says the fund itself is important when quick action is needed, for instance, if a worthy group has lost funding elsewhere.
De La Cruz and Commissioner Wayne Johnson say their $50,000 funds pale in comparison to the $1 million that each Albuquerque city councilor gets to spend on capital projects in their districts.
But these are totally different animals. Councilors’ funds are approved by voters and the money is spent on small capital projects like city parks, not doled out to favorite programs or bagels for constituents.
The intent may be good — commissioners say worthwhile events or organizations might otherwise fall through the cracks — but the easy access to cash has the potential for abuse. It does not appear any county money has been misspent via the special funds. But what official — or candidate for office — wouldn’t like to have a $50,000 kitty available for handouts come election time?
Despite best intentions, county officials should rethink the discretionary funds — especially their “get cash quick” component. County spending requests should jump through all the appropriate hoops. Especially those sought by elected officials.