The Silver City-Grant County TEA Party Patriots hosted a forum on the proposed gross receipts tax hike to fund $10 million in bonds to develop infrastructure.
The mail-in ballot will be delivered to the post office July 29, for mailing to registered voters. The ballot must be returned to Grant County before 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19.
The panel for the forum consisted of Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard, Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten and Silver City Town Manager Alex Brown.
Kasten said the gross receipts tax initiative began about two years ago. "We started talking about things we could do in Grant County."
"I addressed the TEA Party sometime ago about how county government worked and some about demographics," Kasten said. "I talked about things that have disturbed me. We are losing our families. We are doing well with retirees and tourists, but in the past 20 years, we have lost 36 percent of our school-aged population, and in the past 30 years, 50 percent of our school-aged population. If we lose families, sustainability is not possible. Look at Truth or Consequences or Lordsburg. They are broken. I believe we can still turn things around."
He said those often in the room discussing a potential gross receipts tax hike and the projects it could fund included Silver City Mayor James Marshall, Tony Trujillo of WNMU board of regents, County Manager Jon Paul Saari, Brown, Shepard and himself.
"At the beginning we had so many projects, we had to start weeding them out," Kasten said.
Among those hired to advise the county on the issue were bond counsel, Perry Bendicksen, and others. "None takes a dime unless the issue passes."
"We whittled down the projects and came up with projects that are already half built," Kasten said. "I know the TEA Party stands for Taxed Enough Already, but we collect taxes here, send them to Santa Fe and then have to beg to get them back. The county is fiscally fit, while the state and federal governments are broke.
"The misconception is that this is a quality of life bond issue," Kasten continued. "It's a capital infrastructure tax, but it has quality of life and economic development aspects. Not one is an economic driver. The Gila Economic Development Alliance is our No. 1 economic driver. We are in a place where, with very little money, we have the chance to change Grant County forever."
He said Shepard asked him what he wanted in the deal. "I'm from Bayard. I said baseball. I'll find a field and we can improve it."
Shepard asked attendees how many are or were business owners. A number of hands went up. "You had to put your own money into a business. It's the way I grew up in Buckeye, Arizona. My dad ran a family-owned newspaper. I hold true to those conservative ideals."
"I know many, if not most of you, are against any increase in tax," Shepard said. "I don't trust big government to spend my tax dollars either. I'm the last person you could expect to be the poster boy for these projects. What I recognize about Grant County is that we cannot depend on the mines. We have to be masters of our own destiny."
He mentioned vagrants downtown, juvenile crime is up, graffiti is splashed on buildings and vacant storefronts downtown.
"When we had the newspaper, we had to invest in it," Shepard said. "From the students' and juveniles' point of view, there is very little to do here."
He discussed the projects that would be funded by the .25 percent gross receipts tax.
1) Completion of the inside of the Grant County Veterans' Memorial Business and Conference Center;
2) Restoration of the WNMU swimming pool. "Since I got here, I don't think there is a single time when I haven't been asked when the pool would be fixed. But only one student has asked me. It's the community that used it. I've been asked why the university doesn't use its money to fix it. Our state allocations have rules about what they can be used for. A pool was put in near Lake Tahoe, and within 11 years, they paid off a 20-year note. In addition to the NCAA-competitive pool, there could be high school competitions and meets for other swimmers, which brings in people to stay in hotels and eat at restaurants;"
3) "Years ago, Western had a fine baseball team, but the university had to get rid of it because of Title 9 equality, which means teams should be in ratio to the university population. Western is 63 percent women, 37 percent men, so baseball was cut. Cobre and Silver could field teams at Bataan Memorial Park, where Western would play its home games. We want it for the kids to hear the crack of a bat;"
4) Updates of the Silver City Golf Course. "I hear people say it's a rich man's game. Our golf course needs some upkeep. Why is it important? Because people who go to conferences bring their families, who need things to do. If we want to go into the conference business, we need more amenities;" and
5) The fifth component is a multiplex theater. "A lot of people love movies, so they are going to Deming where they go to the movie, eat and buy some gas, leaving their money in Deming."
"Yes, for the pool, the university is a direct beneficiary, but in other ways not," Shepard said. "I will pick up the operations and maintenance of the pools. The smaller pool will be set at a warmer temperature than the required temperature for NCAA competitions."
He said the campus in the summer is used "inefficiently. We could use the new residence halls as rooms for conferences and contribute to the economy." Shepard said Western received $2.5 million for the Light Hall auditorium, which would be used for concerts, speakers, conferences and the public would be able to use it.
"When I interviewed here, I was told of the chasm between the university and the town," Shepard said. "I'm here to put skin in the game and keep us working together. The question for the tax is how are we going to invest. There has been a lot of rhetoric about the past. The public feels it hasn't had a chance for input. We had to narrow it down, but whether it is a movie theater downtown or at Fort Bayard or in between, we will have public forums to decide."
Brown said the tax by the county would involve residents and visitors paying it on consuming anything, except food, within the county anywhere.
"Silver City last year took in $9.3 million in gross receipts tax, $270,000 in property tax and $480,000 in franchise fees for utilities," Brown said. "For the gross receipts tax in Grant County, a lot of the tax comes in from outside the area."
He also said 65 percent of gross receipts taxes happen in Silver City, with 35 percent in the rest of the county. "It helps us being the hub, because we bring in people from southeast Arizona, Hidalgo County and even Deming. These people spending money in the county and giving us gross receipts taxes doesn't cost us anything, but they are supporting our infrastructure. Students' money at Western mostly comes from outside the area. It helps keep money in the area. When there were layoffs at the mine, we brought in Stream International. The employees spent more here. We want to keep people here to support ourselves, but it's hard to keep younger people here."
Kasten said he has heard rumblings about public input. "We have asked you to vote. We don't have to. We can do up to 3/8 GRT with the commissioners."
The meeting was opened to questions, which will be covered in a future article.