Editor's Note: This is part 2 of the welcome session of the Legislative Finance Committee, which met in Silver City at Western New Mexico University June 12-14.
At the Wednesday morning session of the Legislative Finance Committee, during the welcome portion of the meeting, local government officials were asked specific questions by the LFC members.
Rep. Don Tripp said he had read that the town of Silver City had made adjustments to its property taxes.
Mayor James Marshall explained that with a rate of 1.099, the town was in the lower third of property taxes in the state. "We did the same thing to commercial property. Last year, we got an excellent bond rating for a project. Our concern was the hold harmless and our lack of diversity in revenues, as our revenues mostly come from gross receipts taxes, which have gone down."
Tripp asked about the reported bandwidth issue. "Is it a price issue or is it available?"
Silver Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lon Streib said the concern is with price and availability. "Getting bandwidth to Cliff Schools is almost impossible. It will be a strain for the school to get testing done in the time window allowed. We can expand locally, but for the rural school, it will be hard."
Tripp said members of the group had toured a mine near Truth or Consequences. "We asked them what kind of labor force they needed, and they said that students need life skills."
Marshall said life skills are very critical. "Our First Born program teaches life skills and parenting skills. I think it's because families are fragmented all over the country. We have to teach these skills to young parents, because there is no grandmother here to teach them."
Tony Trujillo, WNMU regent, said student success seminars are taught at Western. "We teach kids a work ethic and how to look for jobs. There are opportunities to teach employees to show up for work."
Sen. Howie Morales said he taught the student success courses before he "came to the Legislature. From high school to university, most losses come at the freshman stage. We help students navigate through the university."
Sen. John Arthur Smith talked about sole community provider funding and said part of the problem is that the funding was suspended. "About $500 million to $1 billion are owed to the federal government. My hope is that because the federal government approved the expenditures that they will forgive them. During the hard times, they didn't reduce Medicaid. I see people moving in who have concerns about mining, but I remind them that benefits are not just local. The Forest Service also benefits the area. Looking at free and reduced lunches, the state is still below the average."
"There are a few impact areas," Smith continued. "The finance committees have been looking at sequestration. About $6 billion in federal money is subject to sequestration. The Forest Service and I suspect some of the universities and at Fort Bayard, the state does not have the capacity to backfill. Sequestration is unfolding, but I'm not sure we have the answers."
He addressed landfill fees, which had been talked about earlier. "The remoteness creates problems. It's been unfolding for 22 years." Back to an earlier topic, Smith said: "Cliff is a higher performing school. Maybe they don't need bandwidth." He said he has concerns about schools gaming the formula, and saying they have more special education and English-language learners. "We're punished for being truthful. The Silver Schools cannot be accused of gaming the system. It is imperative that public schools be candid about the schools' populations. We have challenged some schools about their numbers. These are issues this committee wrestles with. The message is that we are doing the best with what we've got, and we appreciate the private sector jobs."
Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez asked what effect the sole community provider funds being cut has on the indigent fund.
Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten said the short answer is the county has less than it had. "We will continue with the matches."
Bayard Mayor Charles Kelly, who is also Gila Regional Medical Center Board of Trustees acting chairman, said the hospital has had discussions with the County Commission. "We may have to cut how much funding we pay out."
Kasten said the current cap is $10,000, but it may have to be lowered. "GRMC will get less to spend on other things."
Martinez asked if new programs would take care of the problem. "No," Kasten replied.
"The drought is anticipated to continue," Martinez said. "What set of projects does the Grant County Water Commission have?"
Kelly said the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in Bayard is doing higher-grade treatment, so it can produce 98 percent clean water. "They assure me it is drinkable, but I don't think I will try it. We can use it to water parks and schools. We have sought funding just about everywhere."
Marshall noted the water commission had voted to support the regional system. "Hurley has been provided water by the mines, but they were told several years ago, that the mine would only do it for 10 more years. The water commission took it as a challenge. Arenas Valley's water system is about a half mile from Santa Clara's, which is a quarter mile from Bayard and a short distance to Hurley. We would bring in Hurley. We are doing water recharge out of Scott Park. We can put in 750 acre-feet from the airport to Hurley. We have a very good plan, but the Office of the State Engineer in Deming is not quite as aggressive as we would like. We have to make sure Hurley has water."
Kasten said the water commission had been pursuing Arizona Water Settlements Act money, but would be pursuing other funding.
Martinez asked about the status of the AWSA. Kasten said all projects are being evaluated by the Interstate Stream Commission.
Smith said he introduced his bill in the last session to shake up people, because the process had been taking place for 12 years or so. "The availability of water has held Grant County back. I perceive water as money. Water is critical."
"Tell the OSE that dam is a good word," Rep. Larry Larrañaga said.
LFC Chairman noted that former Rep. Murray Ryan was in the audience and introduced him. "I see more gray hair," Ryan said. "I hope you have a great meeting."
The next session to be covered addresses the Copper Mining Rules.