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Guardianship office resists use of surplus

SANTA FE, N.M. — During the past three years, the state Office of Guardianship has amassed a surplus of nearly $3 million over its annual $5.5 million budget to provide guardianship services to low-income New Mexicans.

Now state lawmakers have their eye on $1 million of that nest egg to help initiate guardianship changes proposed in Senate Bill 19, which is set for a Senate vote today.

The executive director of the office is crying foul.

“I don’t believe one agency should be able to raid another agency’s funds,” John Block III, the executive director, told the Journal. The agency he oversees manages 21 private contractors who provide court-ordered guardianship services to about 900 indigent incapacitated people. The office has a waiting list of nearly 170 people.

On Monday, state Sen. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, a sponsor of the guardianship bill, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “We do have money in House Bill 2 to start the (reform) process and set up a system to ease the burden (on the state’s courts).”

A special appropriation of $1 million would be diverted from the Office of Guardianship, according to the latest version of the budget bill.

But Block told the Judiciary Committee on Monday, “If you take that $1 million, that’s 185 people that we could provide guardianship services for.”

Block said Tuesday that there are no plans to use that $1 million for additional guardianships. But he told the Journal that $1 million would eliminate the waiting list, if only for a year of services.

Such surplus funds can’t be tapped for recurring expenses. So Block said his office would have to get more funding in the following years to afford any expansion of the guardianship rolls.

Block said some past efforts to transfer money from the surplus has been denied by the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. Meanwhile, he’s seeking funding this session to expand the six-person office staff.

Block also said he hopes to use surplus funds for a $50,000 contract so an outside agency can provide oversight and investigate, if necessary, the office’s guardianship contractors. The contract, however, hasn’t been approved.

State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, on Tuesday dismissed Block’s arguments, saying, “The point is, why haven’t they spent that (fund balance)? They haven’t taken people off the waiting list.” Even if $1 million is diverted, Ortiz y Pino said, “that still leaves $2 million” for the office.

Last fall, the office of then-State Auditor Tim Keller said an initial fact-finding audit revealed a “widespread failure of the (Office of Guardianship) to oversee contract guardians.”

An LFC budget recommendation in January said, “The office is not providing the leadership needed to meet guardianship challenges.”

State Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, echoed the criticism at a hearing last fall.

“You might be short-staffed,” she told Block, “but it feels like a huge failure.”