The Legislative Finance Committee at its meeting in Silver City at Western New Mexico University on June 12-14 began with welcomes from area political entities.
Silver City Mayor James Marshall noted the unprecedented set of partnerships that are happening among the city, the county, the tri-city area and the university. "It's the best relationship we have had with the university that I can remember. (President Joseph) Shepard coming to town has been a huge asset."
He said the town predicted about seven years ago that there would be economic impacts, so "we tried to build out own assets, by improving the baseball fields, rebuilding the tennis courts, and working on the County Business and Conference Center. "We are putting in a new clubhouse at the golf course and diversifying our income. We're doing well. We rasied property taxes at our meeting last night. We have the longest-running MainStreet Project in the state. Enjoy your stay."
County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten, who is also a board member of the New Mexico Association of Counties, said he wanted to mention a couple of issues. "I'm sure you're intimately aware of the Sole Community Provider funding being cut. I urge you to help the counties with hospitals."
He also urged members of the LFC to look at the problems counties are having collecting solid waste/landfill fees. "We have about $400,000 in unpaid bills. Unlike the city, we cannot cut the water off." He suggested paying for the fees through ad valorem fees or property taxes.
"I want to reiterate what Mayor Marshall said," Kasten said. "The great partnerships with the city and the university are creating great collective ideas."
Silver Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lon Streib said Silver Schools are meeting students' needs and getting them ready for the 21st Century. "We are partnering with the state and making the schools more year round. We have reading interventions and are improving to meet needs. If we had more latitude to use funding to buy software, hardware and bandwidth, it would be good. Right now our hands are tied to books. We have a great partnership with the city and have done land and building transfers." He introduced Tricia Martinez, assistant superintendent.
Bayard Mayor Charles Kelly, who is also acting chairman of the Gila Regional Medical Center board of trustees, said the tri-city area works well with the rest of the county. "Gila Regional Medical Center is very important for the area. It touches many families. It is not just local; it is a regional facility. I ask you to think about funding hospitals. We are maintaining quality of care, but it's a lot harder with the cuts."
Tony Trujillo, Western New Mexico University board of regents chairman, spoke "on behalf of the board of regents of the Harvard of the Gila. One and a half years ago, we had 75 applicants from all over the country and out of the country applying to be presidents of Western. We chose Shepard and he has not stopped since he hit the ground."
Shepard, WNMU president, said a couple of changes have helped the university. He videoed the group and then showed it to them. "At Western a year ago, we didn't have voice mail. Now we do." He also played through his iPhone several songs welcoming the group. "This technology would not have been possible without your help."
Prospectors' president Mike McMillan said the group was honored to host the committee meeting. "Our goal is to educate and advocate on issues important to the community. We give our information to legislators on a thumb drive, so it is always available. We also host Grant County Day at the session."
LFC Chairman Luciano "Lucky" Varela addressed the issue of Sole Community Provider funding. "My concern is how many federal dollars we leave on the table. How can we maximize those dollars?"
Kasten said Grant County is putting in as many dollars for the match as it can. "As I understand it, the Human Services Department was miscalculating the amounts and paid out too much—about $13.5 million to public hospitals. We are taking the brunt. GRMC has to pay back $2.7 million and we are also getting less."
Vareal asked the David Abbey, LFC director, to talk to HSD. "What will be the effects of the Affordable Care Act?"
County Manager Jon Paul Saari said: "We're not sure yet. It is predicted through December we will see a shortfall of funding. Putting more people in Medicare and Medicaid will cut what we receive, because their reimbursements are lower. All hospitals will see the cut. GRMC may see less funding because of contracts with managed-care groups. The fixes are making it worse. Our local hospital is having to come up with $8 million in cuts. It has already cut 70 people to 50 percent."
He reported Curry County has to come up with more match money and will not get anything in return. "We all need to diversify and not rely on federal dollars. Maybe put in a ¼ percent gross receipts tax."
Varela said the Health and Human Services Committee should look into the issue. "When do the cuts hit?" he asked
"They already did," Kasten said. "Rural hospitals will not be able to offer all the services they have been offering."
Varela asked Streib about the demographics and types of students. "What are your graduation rates?"
Streib said the graduation rates are not as high as "we would like. They are in the 70s. We need to make it more relevant to students, by changing courses and schedules. The free and reduced lunch population at Sixth Street Elementary also has an extended school year. At the high school, it's hard to get kids to take the free and reduced-rate lunches or get the parents to sign them up. Our population is changing. We are seeing parental support lagging."
Rep. Henry "Kiki" Saavedra said the universities should come up with a program and degree to educate parents.
"I agree," Streib said. "The relevance of the subject matter to students and parents is key. We need to get the vocational education center here going."
Varela said he noted reading proficiency has not changed much from 2007-2012, but he has seen some improvement in math. "We're still not seeing good outcomes for the dollars we are spending."
Larry Larrañaga said changes in the educational system are not able to catch up to the technological changes. "We are seeing kids with iPads."
Martinez said the Silver Schools have adopted digital versions of publications. "This was math improvement year, but we have to prioritize. We are looking at providing Chromebooks for one quarter to one-third of the students, so within three years, we hope every student has a computer in front of them."
Saavedra said setting priorities should come from the local level.
Streib pointed out that the state provides money, but the Public Education Department has rules and regulations so that the schools cannot use textbook money to buy software. "I prefer not to buy another book and put together relevant education for the students."
More questions and answers during the welcome session will be covered in future article(s).