SANTA FE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department held up the spending of roughly $6.6 million allocated to it by state lawmakers during the 2013 budget year and returned it to the state’s general fund.
CYFD, which has struggled with staff shortages in recent years, has been under scrutiny for its handling of the alleged child abuse of a 9-year-old boy who died Dec. 27 after being kicked by his mother.
Some Democratic legislators have expressed frustration that funding for CYFD and other state agencies has gone unspent by the Gov. Susana Martinez administration, saying it has led to high vacancy rates and a short-handed workforce.
“I do have concerns about it,” Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said of the state’s failure to spend that money. “I think trimming the fat (in state government) is good, but you have to be careful you’re not trimming the meat.”
Martinez acknowledged earlier this week that CYFD has had a “revolving door” in employees, due largely to employee burnout and the difficult nature of the job, though she said roughly 300 caseworkers have been hired since she took office in 2011.
The $6.6 million in unspent funds represented about 3.2 percent of the agency’s total 2013 budget, and was documented by the Legislative Finance Committee in its budget recommendations last week.
Attorney General Gary King, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor this year, waded into the controversy on Thursday, criticizing the Martinez administration and saying the money allocated to CYFD could have been used to improve staffing levels at the agency.
“There has been ample evidence for a long time that children who are at-risk in New Mexico have been put in danger needlessly, as in the tragic case of Omaree Varela, because Gov. Martinez has ignored the serious problems at CYFD, an agency under her control,” King said in a news release from his governor campaign, after a news conference on the subject in Albuquerque.
“I think you have to understand what the real world consequences are of reducing the size of government,” King said during the news conference. “In (CYFD’s) case, it doesn’t make any sense to reduce services to children.”
A Martinez spokesman later blasted King for politicizing the death of Omaree Varela.
“Gov. Martinez has dedicated her professional life to protecting children and specialized in prosecuting child abuse and child homicide cases for 25 years,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said. “Her record speaks for itself.”
Knell said any suggestions that Omaree Varela would still be alive if CYFD caseworkers had been paid more were “irresponsible.”
Knell said Martinez previously advocated for the law under which the mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, is being prosecuted.
King said his Attorney General’s Office is still reviewing options to move forward with an independent investigation of the agency’s handling of the Varela case.
Martinez has already announced that the administration will do a full review of the details of the case.
In her $6.1 billion budget plan for the coming year, Martinez proposes spending $600,000 to hire 10 additional investigators in CYFD’s Child Protective Services division. Current caseworkers would also receive pay raises – of various sizes – under the governor’s spending plan.
In all, nearly $66 million in unspent money was reverted to the state’s general fund by various state agencies at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, though that represented only slightly more than 1 percent of the state’s then-$5.6 billion budget, according to Legislative Finance Committee data.
The Martinez administration, which has opposed tax increases and sought to make state government more effective, has described such reversions as being the result of closely monitored spending.
But the reversions, as well as unfilled job posts and high vacancy rates, were on some lawmakers’ radar before the Omaree Varela case.
A top-ranking Democratic legislator wrote a letter to Martinez in October 2013 in which he urged the Republican governor to consider using unspent money to sign off on emergency salary increases for public safety workers in a pair of CYFD divisions.
Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, said in his letter such salary hikes could improve recruitment and retentions efforts, while also boosting morale.
“With these high vacancy rates, critical public services face growing caseloads, leading to increased staff burnout (and) further exacerbating employee vacancies,” wrote Varela in his letter, which was obtained by the Journal.
The requested salary increases were not approved, though the Governor’s Office pointed out Thursday similar pay raises have been proposed by Martinez for the coming fiscal year.
Journal staff writer James Monteleone contributed to this report.