Thursday evening's Democratic Party Forum, also hosted by Western New Mexico University's MEChA and Native American clubs, was opened up for public input. Panelists who replied to questions included Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten, retired financial executive Peter Burrows, Sen. Howie Morales, WNMU President Joseph Shepard, and North Carolina State University online business professor Lynda Aiman-Smith, who lives in Silver City.
The first public comments came from Shelby Hallmark, who said he has lived in Silver City for 2 ½ years. "My question is for Commissioner Kasten. "Other counties gave voters a chance to decide on A, B, C or D. You could have established a commission to decide but you chose a yes or no plebiscite."
Kasten said: "The projects were decided on by Grant County Manager Jon Paul Saari, Town of Silver City Manager Alex Brown, Mayor James Marshall, Dr. Shepard and myself. Some were not eligible for a quality of life ballot issue. We had two county hearings on the issue. The hearing on the resolution brought out the most attendees. Nobody showed up for the ordinance hearing. Public participation was not used, although it was available. And bond counsel told us to do the ballot the way we've done it."
Simon Ortiz, businessman, said he was going to vote no, but "that doesn't mean I don't like the projects. The one I don't like is the theater. I think we need a think tank, using the MBAs at the university to tell us how successful the conference center would be, instead of politicians deciding that. I am viewing the construction and renovation as punitive in the state of New Mexico."
Alex Ocheltree, whose family has been in Grant County for 52 years, said: "Something here is wrong about the way this is perceived. I know I don't like baseball, but I like the theater. Everyone is saying: 'Let's see what's in it for me.' This is about everyone, for your friends and kids. I know well that golf and baseball will benefit the community. I think you are underestimating the benefits. Do we want to bring employers here? They will ask: 'Do they have a movie theater? What's the golf and baseball scene?' I think this is well thought out and I'm voting yes."
Sandra Lucas, Silver City resident, thanked everyone for the input. "I like the projects. My difficulty is with the ballot. I have trouble when it is not an honest ballot. You have to make known the plan. I will vote no."
Bruce McKinney, Silver City resident and businessman, said: "Normally I would love to vote for this. I like the idea of paying a small amount of tax for projects. But I don't like the way the projects were chosen. I not sure they are the five best ones. A lot of kids leave because there are no movies, no pool, and no baseball, but also there are no jobs."
Gordon West, area businessman, asked Aiman-Smith for a description of the difference between an investment and a boondoggle. Aiman-Smith said an investment brings in money and a boondoggle takes money forever. "I suggest you talk to experts and do due diligence. This summer I taught in an MBA program. At least four modules were on choosing projects with a community. Evidence and critical thinking are paramount, when you're working with other people's money."
Kyle Johnson of Gila Mimbres Community Radio asked if anyone could name the commissioners who oversaw the renovation of the Grant County Administration Center. "Can anyone name the members of the former economic development group SIGRED and how many are the same? I think this process is an extreme charm offensive. With a special ballot, statistics show it is likely to pass. How about we also recall the commissioners and vote on that at the same time?"
A WNMU student named Carbajal said she was glad that youths had been mentioned. "It's not about just one person. I have four daughters and one granddaughter. We need more to do. If there were more to do, maybe my 16-year-old wouldn't have gotten pregnant. My nephews play baseball and have a role model with Howie. Let's keep baseball. When I take my daughters to the movie in Deming, it's ridiculous how much we spend there. People need to be more involved. I'm voting for it."
A plumber, by the name of Reyes, who was laid off by Western said: "This is my community. This administration has created a toxic environment, with abuse of power. I support the projects, but not to raise taxes. This administration has disrupted our livelihoods. I can't support someone who allows this to go on. I exposed the gas leak and was retaliated against."
Chris Allen, resident, asked why the ballot said things such as to build a new jail or another airport. "The projects are not listed. What about lights for the tennis courts? I think some in the community can use the pool at Billy Casper Wellness Center. Why not soccer and not spend so much on a swimming pool."
Shepard replied that if baseball comes back, two or three women's sports would have to be in equity, and soccer is one being considered.
Althena Wolf, small business owner, pointed out that New Mexico is one of the poorest states and has the highest maximum gross receipts tax in the nation. "Other taxes that are possible include 3/8 of one percent for timber corporations, 1 percent for molybdenum mining, ½ of one percent for potash and similar taxes for oil and gas, ad valorem and conservation. It's possible to increase these, but not for small businesses."
"Most of these are resource taxes," Kasten said. "I don't believe New Mexico is one of the higher taxed states. We have no taxes on food, medical services or public transportation. Gross receipts taxes are only charges for durable goods and services."
Morales said he would research the issue, because he does not believe New Mexico is the highest. "I would like to see your link to make sure we have the correct information."
Earl Montoya said a bunch of questions had not been answered. "I'm not comfortable with the issue. I want the university to be a quality university, not just a good one. I am concerned with the way the bond issue has been presented. It's an open issue. Just leave the door open. It's the same as Obama on health reform, done behind closed doors. I am concerned because of a report Shepard made at the Gila EDA when he said the state is the most corrupt."
Shepard denied saying that.
Burrows said: "This is a blank check. Shepard is a good guy, but the next one might lock the swimming pool doors."
Kasten said there would be an agreement, a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to full access to the pool for the community.
Tony Trujillo, Grant County native, said that to indicate the projects are not quality of life is a losing argument. He was holding his granddaughter and said he wanted her to stay in the county. "I thank the university, the county and the city for getting together and talking. It was an excellent forum. I heard the issues with the ballot question. Do you not trust that the projects are the ones that will be paid for?"
Jason Quimby, who was raised in Grant County, said what he remembered growing up was what brought him back to the area. "But is it slowly being bled away. I remember movies and putt-putt at Real West. They were among the things that brought me back. I went to Las Cruces to New Mexico State University. I left because (former WNMU president John) Counts took baseball away. This is a huge baseball community. Young adults speak for these things. My generation is bored in this town now."
Nick Seibel said he thought there would be no way that he could return to where he grew up. "I found a job, and now hopefully we will have jobs to keep me here. I was on the Town Council when we brought Stream and Teleperformance here. We got jobs and it was a net gain, but it was an ugly way to have jobs. We have natural resources and great people, but we have reached the point where we have to do for ourselves. The great thing about leaving the projects open-ended is people will have to reply to requests for proposals."
Aiman-Smith said she would be the first one to say: "Pool our money and do some things. I'm afraid stupid stuff will happen."
Robert Wiedemeier of Santa Clara encouraged the panelists to get out to Santa Clara, Bayard and Hurley. Why not sunset the question on the resolution? I don't want a slush fund." He said he feared there would be bait and switch on the projects.
Kasten said: "That boat on the sunset has sailed, and I'm in Bayard every day. It would be disingenuous of us to change the projects. We won't do it."
Wiedemeier asked Shepard why the university didn't pay for its own swimming pool.
"It is because of how the university is funded," Shepard said. "Certain money is for infrastructure. But we can't get it through the state, because it's not academic. In my two years here, many people have asked me about the swimming pool, but only one was a student. This is a community project."
James Baldwin, county resident, said the county received $1.837 million in federal payment-in-lieu-of-taxes. "If the conference center is going to cost $1.8 million, why doesn't the county use that for the conference center? It is deplorable that there is not a sunset clause. I believe in free enterprise. If these were viable entities, they would have been taken over by free enterprise. Corre Caminos has put our free enterprise taxi services out of business."
Bill Carliss, Silver City resident, said when he used to attend movies at the Real West Theater, hardly anyone was there. "Why can't we use the Bayard Community Center for movies? Use solar energy to heat the pool. It costs a small fortune in natural gas. Why don't we create secondary copper processing to make pipes and tubes here? These projects will create maybe five part-time jobs."
The next Democratic Party Forum will take place Aug. 22. The theme will be: "Equality: Do We Need Another Civil Rights Movement?"