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Grant County commissioners listen to public input and hear legislative update

Editor's Note: This will be a multi-part series on the Grant County Commission regular session held Thursday, Feb. 27 at 9 a.m.
 
Photos and Article by Mary Alice Murphy
 
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The Grant County Commission regular meeting opened with public input.
 
Robert Stultz, who called himself the "token, Jewish white trailer trash in Hurley" protested that he had been pulled over twice, while he was driving his 21-year-old car. He said he would like it to stop. "The Sheriff explained to me that it was because of a program to address money laundering and drug smuggling. I'm neither."
 
Allyson Siwik, Gila Conservation Coalition executive director, said she wanted to talk about the Arizona Water Settlements Act planning process and a possible diversion. 
 
During the hearing for Senate Bill 89 on related spending of some of the AWSA funding for non-diversion alternatives, Siwik said there was a range of testimony. She said Anthony Gutierrez of the Gila/San Francisco Water Commission stated that he was tasked with a way to justify a diversion, and that he had talked to investment bankers about public/private funding.
 
"The Interstate Stream Commission has said it will cost $300 million to $500 million for a project," Siwik said. "There was also testimony at the hearing that the project has fatal flaws, according to Norm Gaume, former ISC director. He alleged it could cost two to three times the estimate. If that is true, the water user or the taxpayer or both will be saddled with the cost."
 
Siwik posited that privatizing water results in rate increases and water exports, "which can result in water insecurity."
 
"I am here today to submit an Information of Public Records Act request for documents related to the discussion with bankers," Siwik said. "This is an important year, because the ISC must let the Secretary of the Interior know by Dec. 31 what the state will do with the water and funding. It is imperative that this be discussed publicly. None has happened in the Grant County Commission minutes or meetings."
 
The next public input speaker was Gabe Holguin, Gila National Forest fire and aviation officer.
 
"I want to tell you what the Gila National Forest is expecting and how we are preparing for the fire season," Holguin said. "In 2013, we had a fine monsoon, so now we have above normal fine fuel. We are in an ongoing drought of 10 plus years—the fifth worst in recorded history. We are preparing. We have our normal complement of nine engines, two Hot Shot crews, two helicopters and two four-man crews, which we are bringing in, as of March 15. Across the country, there are only 19 air tankers. Our Southwest Fire Fighter training will allow us four new crews. We have set up a Type 3 Incident Management Team for the Las Cruces Zone. I will be the incident commander. We have Gila National Forest, Las Cruces Bureau of Land Management and New Mexico Forestry personnel on the team. Because they are close, our response time will be four hours or less.
 
"We are expecting an active season, with the difference being the grass growth," Holguin continued. "We've already had six fires. On the one east of Bear Mountain, we saw juniper trees torching, telling me the live fuel features are high. As for the weather, some predictions are saying April and May will be wet months, but we are planning for the worst-case scenario. We will bring smokejumper crews in earlier and the helicopters, too. They usually come April 15."
 
He said the team is holding a risk management workshop on March 10, with the National Incident Management Organization, which manages complex fires. 
 
"Has the Forest Service talked about restrictions yet?" Commissioner Ron Hall asked.
 
"All six fires have been human-caused, so we are considering restrictions," Holguin said.
 
"I met with Wind Canyon residents," Hall said. "One of the things they talked about was possible support and if the Forest Service could assist with picking up debris from creating defensible space."
 
"In Catron County, they have set up an area where people can take their trimmings," Holguin said. "We are also coordinating with New Mexico Forestry and the Grant County Preparedness Symposium March 7 and 8. We must put the responsibility back on the homeowners to protect their own homes."
 
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten thanked Holguin for keeping the commission in the loop.
 
Mike Cuff of the Cliff-Gila Farm Bureau spoke during public input. "In the AWSA planning process, there are 15 proposals, several of which are targeted at the Gila Valley. Some of those are within the $128 million cost. The largest project is over the Continental Divide, but the largest diversion is to allow the water to go to Arizona."
 
Judy O'Loughlin, Grant County Extension Service director, introduced the new agricultural agent in the office—Sam Lowry. 
 
"I'm originally from Mesilla," Lowry said. "I graduated from New Mexico State University. I want to give a thank you to the community for the warm welcome. I look forward to working with the community. Come by to see us and talk about our programs."
 
Sheriff Raul Villanueva asked to recognize an employee, who was going to retire. "Danny Legarda of the Civil Process Division has given the office 18 years of service. I will give him his certificate of retirement, as of March 1. 
 
Hall said, in his position as a past judge, he had had the opportunity to work with Legarda.
 
Randy Villa, Grant County Fire Management officer, said his office is aware of the fire danger. "We thank Gabe for working with the soil and water conservation districts to update their plans. We are working together with the town of Silver City, the Forest Service, BLM and state forestry on a comprehensive plan."
 
Kasten administered the oath of office and commissioners gave badges to the Detention Center officers. "This is important to all of us," Detention Center Administrator Mike Carrillo said. "Our officers have been doing a wonderful job."
 
Senator Howie Morales gave an update on the recently completed legislative session. "I felt it was a productive session. The primary objective of a 30-day session is to get a budget done. It was unusual this year. House Bill 2 is usually passed within the first two weeks of the session, but this year, it was tied at 34-34. With the work of the Senate Finance Committee, during the last week of the session, along with the House leadership, Sen. John Arthur Smith worked hard to get a budget. The tie in the House was because of the education budget. They had different ideas. One Democrat voted with the Republicans and two Democrats were out ill."
 
"It was beneficial for me to have worked with school budgets," Morales said. "My advocacy was to get the money to the local districts. I understand the compromise. A hang-up was merit pay. The governor wanted $20 million for merit pay. We got it down to $7 million discretionary funding. We are awaiting the approval. It is on the governor's desk. The budget was a 4 percent increase over last year. A 3 percent increase in pay was across the board for public officials. Our courts have been hit hard, and we got assistance to their retirement accounts.
 
"Other big issues during a 30-day session have to come from the governor's call," Morales said. "One was the lottery scholarship program. We know in these challenging times, it's difficult to sustain. We didn't have a long-term fix. My concern was the bill was going to raise the grade-point average and course requirements. The program has a $10 million shortfall, because we lost $24 million in tobacco company challenges. But we had to make sure to cover the spring scholarship payments. 
 
"I appreciate your work," he continued. "We had a full house on Grant County Day. The community showed up strongly. Directly related to the county, we talked a lot about the hospital. We settled on assessing the counties a 1/12th to go into the state program. This amount will leave $9 million to $12 million on the table in matching federal funds. My concern is that it could be only up to $48 million coming back into the state. My amendment will direct the Human Services Department to find the $9 million to $12 million and to take ownership of the program, without asking counties to bear the burden. The vote showed all parties supporting it.
 
"Some constitutional amendments never got through committee, except for the minimum wage, which died in the House," Morales said. "I know it's a risk to get into the Permanent Fund for early education. It died in my committee 8-2. I was surprised at the vote. Another constitutional amendment would have put it to the voters to remove the Public Education Secretary if she is never confirmed. We need stability in the department. It will not be on the ballot. Another amendment that will not be on the ballot is the legalization of marijuana, but a memorial passed to see how Colorado is faring with its legalization."
 
He said communication with his constituents is important. "I listen to all sides."
 
Hall thanked Morales for his support and leadership for the community.
 
"It was awesome to see you in action," Commissioner Gabriel Ramos said. "We appreciate your talking to us."
 
"We appreciate your participation in our concerns," Kasten said. "We will be putting together resolutions on the hospital situation. We were one of four counties that could fund our facilities. This program should be funded at the state, not by the counties. We could lose $46 million to $48 million if your amendment is vetoed."
 
"It takes a team," Morales said. "I know the information is just a text away.
 
"The Prospectors' Forum is very valuable," he continued. "It gives us the information we need. Having Rep. (Rodolpho 'Rudy') Martinez on the House Appropriations is very helpful. It is a benefit to the community."
 
The next article will continue with agenda items.

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