[Editor's Note: This is part two of multi-article series on the work and regular sessions held by the Grant County Commission this week. Because of prior commitments on Tuesday and Wednesday, the review and approvals of the agenda items will be combined in one or two following articles, with the last article being the county and elected officials' reports.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
On Thursday, April 20, 2017, Grant County commissioners met in regular session.
Several items of public input came first.
Gila National Forest Fire and Aviation Staff officer Gabe Holguin presented a 2017 fire season update.
"We have our normal contingents of nine engines, a couple of Hot Shot crews and a tanker ready at the fire base at the Grant County Airport," Holguin said. "We had a recruitment program for high school students, juniors and seniors older than 17 years of age. They will support fire camp, to keep things clean, serve food, and provide supplies to firefighters. We recruited about 50 from Cobre, Silver, Cliff, Animas, Reserve and Aldo Leopold Charter School. It's primarily to bring them into the field of natural resources."
He said the Forest Service looks at several factors to predict a fire season. First is drought, and "it is totally alleviated by the past two good winters," Holguin said. "Fine fuel, such as grasses and wildflowers are abundant, with the carryover from the past two winters. There is a potential for fine fuels to grow more in abundance, but they need time to cure."
Holguin said the Miller, Whitewater-Baldy and Silver fires occurred in very dry years. The Miller happened in the sixth driest year of the 120-year record, and the Whitewater-Baldy in the second driest year.
"This year is a much different picture," Holguin said. "It is the ninth wettest year, but the second warmest. I think it will be a really hot summer, according to the weather predictions. The monsoon is pretty regular. It usually starts right around July Fourth.
"The predictive services are saying that east of the Rio Grande will have an above normal fire season, but normal here," he continued. "It should be similar to last year, when we managed the McKenna Fire and the Turkey Fire. They did good stuff. We live in a fire-dependent ecosystem. We can't exclude fire. If we do, we get big fires."
The Gila is doing preplanning. "We met internally with all six districts. We look at the values at risk. Is it the wildland-urban interface? Is it power lines? Natural resources? Endangered species? We also look at areas for beneficial objectives."
He said he has met with Randy Villa, Grant County fire management officer and Jeff Fell, Silver City Fire Department interim chief, to talk about multi-agency responses. "We have to work out the kinks. We have different radio frequencies, for instance. We will have a sand table exercise to talk to each other as if it's real time to work out the bugs."
"We are planning to manage the fires to maintain the forest for generations to come," Holguin said. "Human-caused fires will be automatically suppressed."
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten asked if the Forest Service anticipates having tankers full time or might they be pulled out to other places. He wanted to know so the airport could plan for fuel availability.
Holguin said it would likely not be consistent. "There are not many of them. We are in transition to bring on jet tankers and phasing out the old ones. I order them when I need them. We have been ordering single-engine tankers and will have smokejumpers here around May 15."
Raul Turrieta of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition talked about the upcoming Continental Divide Trail Days, April 28-30. Jenny Gaeng, Gateway Community coordinator, said Silver City is unique in its support for hikers. She said between 200 and 300 attempt to hike the 3,100-mile scenic trails each year.
For CDT Days, Friday and Saturday will have full days of presentations and seminars at Seedboat Gallery for through hikers and those wanting to check out the local parts of the CDT. Friday evening will be a gear raffle at Little Toad Brewery. Saturday, the corner of Bullard and College will be shut down for gear vendors, land management agencies and others. Saturday night will feature a keynote speech by two hikers, who attempted the trail in the dead of winter. Sunday will feature a public hike led by Turrieta to the top of Gomez Peak.
Turrieta said on April 29, also part of Silver City activities will be WNMU's Great Race and a community theater performance that evening.
Luís Pérez said he read in the paper about work on the conference center. "I don't think the community was properly notified about the amount of money spent on the center. Who is going to run it? What will it be used for? Was there a local study done in town?"
He said if it doesn't make money, taxpayers would end up paying for it. "We need local support for the papers. I would like to see better use of Lodgers' tax to promote the county. I ask the county to postpone the vote on the contract with the chamber."
Sen. Howie Morales presented a legislative session update. "I congratulate the county for the groundbreaking for Tu Casa. I give special credit to (County Manager) Charlene (Webb) for keeping me up to date on county concerns and issues. And to (Planning and Community Development Director Michael) Mischa (Larisch) for dealing with the Department of Finance and Administration. I thank you commissioners for all your communications with me during the session on how to best serve the county. That communication needs to continue. Knowing how bills will affect local governments is important."
He noted that this session was different. "From Day 1, as soon as the ceremonies were over, there was no ceremonial feeling. We got right to work immediately to deal with the 2017 budget to address the $50 million vetoed from the special session. We addressed it in a bipartisan manner in the first week of the session. The following week, we began to deal with the fiscal year 2018 budget."
Morales said, as of right now, there is no budget for the legislature or for higher education. "It's a constitutional issue, if we get rid of the third leg of government."
"New Mexico is suffering, while states around us are thriving," Morales said. "The veto of funding for higher education sends a message that New Mexico does not value training a workforce. It's the perception nationally that is a concern.
"I think it will be fixed," he continued. "I thought the budget was fair. We came together in a bipartisan fashion. To think we can cut our way to a balanced budget is not realistic. The reality is we have no other places to cut. We will not cut our way out; we will not raise taxes for our way out. The House budget was passed on party line, but the Senate was bipartisan. I think a special session will take place in the next week or two."
He said if hold harmless is phased out, "it will devastate Silver City. Grant County and Silver City work closely together. Even though Grant County falls under the population limit, had the Commission not passed the three-eights hold harmless tax allowed, we would not have Tu Casa. If the governor comes back with repercussions against those who chose to take the three-eights, it would be a problem. I hope we continue to have discussions. If we don't have the opportunity to come together on both sides, it will have devastating affects for the state."
Kasten said he has worked a lot on the three-eighths gross receipts tax issue. "One of the issues with possibly taking away the three-eighths and hold harmless is that it will impact our bonding capacity. It will send a message to Moody's and Standard and Poor's. Taking away bonds would destroy the counties and the state."
He talked about one unintended consequence of the veto of higher education funding. It was on WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. "Kids are having to drop out of veterinarian school. I know of one who may be able to continue, but another had to drop out. The timing was horrible. I hope the state can go back to the universities and work with individual students to make sure they are reinstated. Some of these things are irreparable."
"I always say: 'A weak local government equates to a weak state,'" Morales said. "My concern on the three-eighths and hold harmless are the impact on the state. We have only 1 percent reserves at the state. WICHE is for health care-related professions. I talked to that student you're talking about. It is heart-breaking."
Morales said he tried to be positive, "but I have huge concerns. There will be more people leaving the state I love and live in. There will be more businesses leaving; more jobs leaving. I will vote yes on the same budget. I will also vote yes for an extraordinary session."
Veterinarian Dr. Kevin Brown said WICHE was important to get him through school. He asked Morales: "The lottery scholarship is for undergraduates. Is there any money from the lottery possible for professional positions?"
Morales said the lottery has been of a huge benefit to students right out of high school. The problem is there is no money, as it is another fund being hit.
Commissioner Harry Browne said he had heard from Rep. Rebecca Dow that she thought the transfer of Yucca Lodge (which was a local resident substance abuse treatment facility and was transferred to Roswell without letting local people know) might have a beneficial side for the area, because there would be more beds for veterans.
Morales said he was disappointed in the way the transfer of Yucca Lodge was done "unprofessionally and not transparently. I'm all for veteran services. My dad is a veteran, but for the media to put a positive spin on the transfer is not right."
"To remove a program we have had since the 1970s, I cannot put a positive spin on it," Morales said. "I will ask questions of the Department of Health. Our residents stepped forward to pay taxes for the facility which head on was addressing DWI and drug abuse. One leg of our stool has been taken away. I thought it was wrong."
Turrieta asked about HB 412, the Jason Harper bill. "Will we still be talking about it?" Morales said he had voted against it. "How it got out of the House I don't know. The way it proposed tax reform is a tax on non-profits. The hospital will be taxed under this concept of tax reform. It's just giving the executive branch a way of saying she didn't raise taxes. When she took away hold harmless, she was pushing tax down to the local level. If you were going to school activities, you would be taxed to go into a game. Tax reform is a code word for tax increase."
Morales said he voted for HB 202. "It was a tough vote. For the gas tax, we got bipartisan support. There are other opportunities. I hope the governor will reconsider and come together in a bipartisan manner."
Kasten said he supports a reset on gross receipts tax. "It was simple to start with and then it kept getting amended."
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos thanked Morales for the special attention he gives to them when they come to the session.
The next article will cover the agenda and items approved by commissioners, as well as the discussions around them.