Terry Brunner, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development New Mexico director, held informal meetings, "Give your two cents to Terry," in Bayard Tuesday evening and in Deming Wednesday morning.
At the meeting at the Bayard Community Center, only three people showed up to talk to Brunner, but he held the meeting nonetheless.
"I want to give people a chance to talk about what's going on in their small town," Brunner said. "We at USDA Rural Development need to do a better job of listening."
He said New Mexico now has the highest rate of poverty in the nation, and the income disparity is the largest it has been in a long time.
"When I go to meetings statewide, rural issues are not even on the agenda," Brunner said. "Economic improvement is happening, but not in rural areas."
He said he has recently spoken to two reporters in the larger cities of the state, and they don't even think about rural areas, although the second one asked Brunner: "Why do these rural towns need to exist?"
"I want to have 40, 50, maybe 60 meetings in small towns and then create a report," Brunner said, "so I can show to other agencies and Congress about how small towns can improve."
John Vanvig, Indian Hills property owners' association president, told Brunner the group had talked about introducing natural gas and sewer to the area.
"We have about 500 lots, with about 450 built on," Vanvig said. "Some have natural gas, but many are heating with propane or wood. Most are on septic systems. The notice in the paper sounded like you're interested in helping fund projects."
Brunner said the division works with mutual domestic water associations up to municipalities and cities.
"On the loan side, we can offer 3.2 percent interest and can extend a loan up to 40 years," Brunner said. "These are basic for water and sewer needs."
Vanvig said the property owners likely would not be interested in forming their own mutual domestic water association.
Brunner asked if the homes were in the town of Silver City or in the county. Vanvig said some are within city limits, but most are in the county.
Brunner said the county or the town might be able to apply for the funding on behalf of the property owners. He suggested Vanvig call Martha Torres at his office, and handed Vanvig his card.
"Las Vegas had the same problem," Brunner said. "It was too big with more than 10,000 residents, which is the upper limit for such funding. Ask Martha questions. You may have to talk to the town or county."
Vanvig said his group had talked to Texas-New Mexico Gas Company about extending natural gas into the area, but was told it would cost $100 a foot to extend the line. The funding would be required upfront.
"That's one of the challenges," Brunner said. "A developer can put up houses, but there is no gas, and they don't know if there's water."
He said his office has shrunk in personnel from a high of 57 people a few years ago to 42 now. "In our heyday, we had offices in every city."
"Congress gives us more money to spend with fewer people to oversee the spending," Brunner said. "USDA is second to (the Department of) Defense with more than 100,000 people nationwide."
He said the "fiscal cliff" and "sequestration" would cause an automatic cut of 20 percent to the agency. "As the baby boomers working for the agency retire, we are losing knowledge."
Brunner said one of the growing economies in rural areas is health care, because the rural population is aging much faster than in urban areas.
Charles Kelly, Bayard mayor, who also serves on the Gila Regional Medical Center Board said the hospital offers good services for the area, including for those from Deming and Lordsburg, as well as from Catron County.
"Our board is worried about federal and state cost-cutting and is concerned it might have to lay off personnel," Kelly said.
Brunner said the USDA had just funded a large expansion to Holy Cross Hospital in Taos.
"We are trying to get funding for a full-time ambulance in the Mining District," Kelly said. "Right now it's 22 minutes from GRMC, in case of an emergency and depending on traffic.
"Because we're small, it's hard to find funds," Kelly continued. "Most people in Bayard are retired."
Brunner asked what else the mayor was hearing.
"Water is a big deal," Kelly said. "We have some equipment at the well field that is so antiquated, it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to refurbish. We may have to drill a new well."
Brunner said he realized that it is getting more and more expensive to maintain equipment.
"Our well field is a shallow basin," Kelly said. "Silver City and all the municipalities are trying to be in a regional system. We have our own water system, but could use the regional system for emergencies."
He said the county has applied for Arizona Water Settlements Act funding for a reservoir near Fort Bayard. The county has the money for a study, "but most of the natural flow from the mountains goes into our well field. If the reservoir should block up the water, our well field will dry up. The county also wants to use the treated effluent to fill the reservoir, but our regional wastewater treatment plant would need a lot of additional equipment."
Brunner said Ruidoso had built a $12 million plant to add effluent to the Rio Ruidoso, and "reports say that the wildlife is back, and so is the water to the river."
"The idea of a reservoir is attractive," Kelly said, "but we would have no more water. Of course, we could buy it from Silver City
"Right now, we are trying to get funds to use effluent to recharge the well field and to water the ballfields," Kelly continued. "We also want a cemetery."
Brunner asked Kelly what he saw in the local workforce.
"When the mine is going, we're good," Kelly said. "We're just hanging on over here. Silver City seems healthy.
"But we're optimistic in our little town," Kelly reported. "A lot of positive things are going on. The library is a huge asset and busy all the time. Now we own the old depot and would like to turn it into a Visitor Center or a small mining museum."
Brunner said he brags about Bayard a lot across the state, as one of the small towns that is taking advantage of USDA programs and seeing improvements.