Several forums have been held this week on the upcoming mail-in ballot on the issue of whether to increase the gross receipts tax rate for the county by one-quarter of a percent to pay for a $10 million bond to fund five proposed capital improvement projects jointly identified by the Town of Silver City, Grant County and Western New Mexico University.
Thursday night, the Democratic Party, along with the WNMU MEChA and Native American clubs, hosted a forum at Western's Miller Library.
Native American Club President Chelsea Crespin welcomed the crowd, as did MEChA vice president, Sarita Reyes.
Lorna Wilkes-Ruebbelmann, chairwoman of the forum committee, also welcomed the participants, "on behalf of Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Hotvedt." She introduced the moderator, Alicia Edwards, The Volunteer Center executive director.
"We are all here tonight because we care about our community," Edwards said. She set forth time parameters for panelists and comments from the audience.
The first panelist to speak was Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten.
"How this came about was that about two years ago when Dr. Shepard showed up, he came to see me and asked me what I would like to see in the community," Kasten said. "'I miss baseball,' I told him, 'and the kids do, too.' Then about six or eight months later, he said he had an idea.
"The Gila Economic Development Alliance identified Western as the No. 1 economic driver of the community," Kasten continued. "We had thought a lot about how to get Western involved in the community. The president, Silver City mayor and town manager, the county manager and I had periodic meetings. The mayor and president thought Grant County would be the best one to fund the ideas we were developing.
"So we made appointments with bond counsel, Perry Bendicksen of Brownstein Hyatt in Albuquerque," Kasten said. "We were rudely surprised that the county could not go out for a bond issue. That's how we came up with the gross receipts tax option to fund about $10 million in bonds. I say about, because interest rates fluctuate. We started meeting and talking about projects. We talked to constituents, and the laundry list became too long. We wanted items that all put together would make the county a better place to live and best for the most people."
Kasten said the county is starting to lose its infrastructure, and "in 10 years, we've lost 26 percent of our school-aged population and in the past 30 years, more than 50 percent. We are tearing at the fabric that holds the community together. I want my families back. I love retirees and visitors, but look at communities, such as T or C and Lordsburg. They are broken. I have unbridled hope that Grant County won't travel that path."
He said the project picked by the county is to complete the interior of the business and conference center, which, although open only about five months last fiscal year brought in between $60,000 and $70,000.
"Just to make it clear, we are asking for your opinion and input, because we have the ability, as the commission, to invoke up to 3/8 gross receipts tax without allowing a vote," Kasten said. "We think enough of your opinion to let you vote."
Peter Burrows, retired from the financial sector, used frequently, in his comments as panelist, the term—compassionate visionary investment genius.
"I will give generic comments on the appropriateness of using politically inspired investments," Burrows said. "Living in New Mexico, we are ground zero for taxpayer financial investments by compassionate visionary investment geniuses."
As an example, he said the Road Runner railway was supposed to cost $150 million, but in reality it cost $830 million and loses $100 million a year. "Typically New Mexico," he said. "The losses will go on forever."
Then he spoke about the Spaceport and described it as "a $200 million piece of cement so billionaires can play Buck Rogers. Nobody asked what the competitive threat was. There are a lot of spaceports and the next one will be in Colorado. (Richard) Branson is paying $1 million a year, but if he gets upset, he can pay $5 million and take a hike. One of the excuses used to support the Spaceport was that kids would get jobs and would be inspired to take math and science. Really! So we want to build a $3 million multiplex, and they will come. I suggest you find a piece of land to give to somebody to develop a theater if they think it is viable. Ask Cinemark. Say: 'Here's $10 grand, come see us. Ask them to put their name on a contract or write two pages why not. The multiplex is reason enough to vote it down."
He said the No. 1 reason was that half of the funding would go to the state-supported university. "Western is a terrific benefit to the county, but if it becomes a burden on the taxpayers, it is not a good investment. I don't think the pool and baseball will be economic drivers."
New Mexico Sen. Howie Morales was the next panelist.
"The County commission, the city and the university have worked together," Morales said. "That's one thing that makes Grant County great—their engagement in the process. We all who are here chose to stay here to make this the best community in New Mexico. I am very cautious with taxpayer dollars. I came into the Legislature in 2008 at the tail end of when New Mexico had a surplus, and then the economy went down. Every project must be vetted. I serve on the Rural Economic Development Committee. What can we do to sell the community to bring in industry? Economic gardening is growing from within, so we shine. We have to improve childhood welfare and education to attract businesses. There are things that can be done within the process to benefit everyone. I want access for the taxpayers, if the voters approve this issue, and as we go through and talk about the projects."
Morales said he sat in on the tax policy meeting, which is where the estimate of $10 million came from. Tax breaks are often over-estimated, and the $10 million is often lower. He served as County Clerk and noted that mail-out ballots are generally positive. On the most recent mail-out ballot to extend funding for emergency services, 81 percent approved the issue, but only 4,025 people voted out of the 20,000 registered voters.
The jail bond was not enough, so the jail didn't end up with what was wanted. "For many years, we had nothing to show for the bond and heard nothing about it."
To those representing governmental entities, Morales warned that audits must be in place. "I'm proud of our communities who have gotten their audits in on time."
As for state funding for local projects, he pointed out that he represents three counties, and Bernalillo County alone has eight senators.
WNMU President Joseph Shepard said he is continually impressed with the turnout and passion at forums such as this one.
He listed the five projects that have been proposed by the county, city and university.
1) For baseball, one field at Bataan Memorial Park would be used for Western to play home games. "I think most of the play time should be for the Mining District. That will cost $600,000."
2) The swimming pool was leaking 900,000 gallons of water a day. To repair it and make it a competitive pool would require adding 8 inches to the length, as it was built in the days of yardage and now competitions are done in meters. The pool would be used for a university women's swimming team, to help balance the men's baseball team. "I envision constant competitions for the high schools and the college. In addition, there would be a 25-meter pool with warmer temperatures for recreational swimmers." Both would cost a combined $3.4 million.
3) The county Business and Conference Center looks good on the outside, he said, but the roof needs to be replaced and the interior reconfigured at a cost of $1.7 million to $2 million.
4) Three million dollars would build a theater shell, so the county could go out for proposal. "People point to Deming and say people go there to see a movie, eat dinner and put gas in their cars. The money stays there. But their theater has other components. It's comparing apples to oranges."
5) The final piece, he said, is the golf course. "As for the complaint that golf is a rich man's game, this one is used every summer for a program for underprivileged children in the community. If you want to bring in conferences, you need amenities, such as golf.
"We're starting an investment in the community," Shepard said. "The mine is not always going to be around. Let's prepare now."
He said the county's master plan done by Angelou Economics noted the strengths. Among them were Western and its nursing program.
"This is an opportunity for communication between the university and the community," Shepard said. "The weaknesses in the Angelou study were a lack of higher-paying jobs and a lack of amenities to pull in young adults. I know because I am competing for faculty against other colleges.
"This bond issue is for us," he continued. "If we want to be a wealthy state, we need to invest in our future."
The last panelist was Lynda Aiman-Smith, a management and entrepreneurship professor online for North Carolina State University. She said she would not be discussing particular projects.
"This is not economic development," Aiman-Smith said as she showed a poster of a bucket, with faucets of inflows to circulate money and attempts to prevent leakage.
"This is not infrastructure," she said. "It's not roads or sidewalks."
She pointed out Grant County has approved an infrastructure plan and the only project on the list is the Business and Conference Center. "I love the idea of developing a business plan for the conference center."
Aiman-Smith also said the projects were not quality of life. "There's a huge literature showing that first for quality of life is education, not just sports. Others include green, open space and arts and culture. Youth development is another one on the list, and part of that happens in sports. When you look at the police and sheriff's blotters, half of them are domestic disturbances. We need to help youths talk about that. The last thing on the quality of life list is healthy living, including good food and good nutrition."
She said usually the process is that the problem is defined and the community develops the solutions, working on them together. "That process was not done here. It was a choice. We're not talking about the projects, because they are not on the ballot. The ballot took language from statute rather than tying it to projects. All other counties tie ballots to projects. We are going to hand the commissioners a blank check, with no sunset agreed upon, so it can go on forever."
The next article will cover public input.