By Mary Alice Murphy 

[Grant County District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne moderated the meeting he promoted to receive input on the potential designation of Silver Acres and the surrounding area as a colonia, in order to access funding to upgrade the water, wastewater and road systems in the area. His district includes the area under consideration. District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings also attended because his district lies just south of the area. District 1 Commissioner and Chairman Chris Ponce attended, as did District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards.]

Browne: My interest was to give you the option to give us input. [Pointing to the map] I would like to see it move and include more land to the east.

The meeting is not being recorded. We ask anyone with concerns give them to the commissioners in writing. 

We'll try to answer your questions, but we may not remember all of them.

[He introduced Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero, who would explain the process and answer questions.]

Lucero: I was born and raised here in Silver City. I have spent 32 years with the Council of Governments. I am always seeking money for Grant County. This is about how I can bring more funding to the area. I work for four counties, Grant, Catron, Hidalgo and Luna. I also work for municipalities, school districts, water districts and other governmental entities. I was one of the original planners for the colonias designation in the early 1990s. It's a federal designation. There are several different designations, including a New Mexico designation. The HUD (Housing and Urban Development) mandates that at least 10 percent be in a colonias area; USDA funds many water and wastewater projects, but they have to be sustainable.; the EPA focuses on wastewater. The HUD definition says the area has to be within 150 miles of the border; The USDA and EPA say within 62 miles and only for water projects. HUD will fund water, sewer and roads. The state definition almost mirrors the HUD requirements within 150 miles of the border.

One of the critical pieces is that Senators Mary Kay Papen and Howie Morales developed the Colonias Infrastructure Fund. It was difficult to get it only for the southern part of the state. It was a collaboration with the tribal areas. There is a separate fund for the tribal areas and another fund for colonias in southern New Mexico.

In 2012, the fund began with a $16 million allocation for water, wastewater, roads and sidewalks.

Last week, they made a change in policy that helps low-income households hook up their lines to the water or wastewater systems.

The County has a requirement for an Affordable Housing Plan, which the county does have. We're the lead in this county on the issue of 162 houses on and off Ridge Road. Colonias is just a word. It means the area that is designated a colonia is eligible to receive funding. The county has received $7 million in federal funding and $19 million in state funding over the past seven years. 

Another important piece is that there is no limit to the number of applications or to the amount requested. The fund has to assure geographic distribution of the money. The upcoming amount in the fund is $20 million.

My goal as a CIF board member is to spend every dollar and to bring our share here. I had to look at all the possibilities for designation. They include 1) inadequate water pressure on Lance Drive, as the cast iron pipe is past its life. If we had had adequate flows during the Quail Ridge Fire, it would have made a difference. 1) wastewater. There's no sewer system, just septic tanks. 3) adequate housing.

No, not all the things are required. But it gives us options to apply for any category. In my work, I find we have natural-occurring contaminants in the ground. If someone is dispensing sewage, the more you pump, it pulls the sewage toward you. What we are proposing is to protect you and to meet your needs.

My goal is to answer questions to bring a comfort level to you on this designation and help you understand the process.

Male: What is the spending cycle of the Colonias Infrastructure Fund?

Lucero: The annual deadline is February, which is coming up quickly. I represent the southwest region on the board. We do not vote on projects. We inform the board of needs. As a team we make sure to address compliance issues.

Female: Where does Silver City get its water?

Ponce: The water comes from the Franks Well Field, and from Woodward Field and wells near Tyrone.

Lucero: In my early years at the New Mexico Environment Department, they did not log septic systems or cesspools. I have to call and find out whether a septic tank is permitted, for instance.

Female: It looks to me like there is a need for more background information. Can money be spent on funding wells and such?

Lucero: The NMED has been looking at the situations for years.

Same female: Do we have a problem in the area with septic versus sewer?

Lucero: As an example, one of the water associations had an administrative order that penalized them because septic sewage was leaking into the groundwater. 

Some funding agencies require an engineering assessment. We need buy-in on an assessment. The water association turned down an award of $2 million, while penalties were assessing every day. They are your tax dollars. If we don't use them, they go to another state. In that example of 100 households, if a line collapsed, each family would have had to pay $8,000.

Male: What is the difference between having to pay that $8,000 and having to pay to hook up to the sewer system?

Lucero: That $8,000 is for the first phase for design and a plan. Silver City is going to waive the hookup fee. Those fees will be the in-kind match for the 10 percent match on the 10 percent loan. The costs depend on the size of the system. Are septic tanks permitted? Do they pump properly? 

All we're doing today is talking about the designation. It's up to the county commissioners to determine if they will do the designation. 

Male: What does the developer of the subdivision have to do with this?

Lucero: Silver Acres became a subdivision in 1967. These are individual homeowners. The developer has nothing to do with it.

Male: Where does this wastewater go?

Lucero: It is reused as treated effluent.

Male: What is the difference between wastewater and sewage?

Browne: The wastewater plant is treating the sewage.

Lucero: If only one septic tank is not working, it impacts everyone.

Female: My plumbing comes out of the back of my house. The county doesn't clean up the arroyos, so we have to clean up things so our house doesn't flood. If some day we have to hook up to the sewer, it will destroy my landscaping.

Lucero: What if commissioners decided there is a drainage problem? That is an eligible activity under this designation.

Male: Our only problem is Ridge Road.

Lucero: That is an eligible activity under the program.

Female: If we have the designation, and we have a septic that is functioning, would we have to switch to sewer?

Lucero: A sewer is not decided yet. But yes, you would have to switch, because it would be regional.

Male: We moved from northern Virginia. Our bill was water and sewer together. Then we moved here, our bill is 40 percent higher for just water. Our septics are working and we don't want sewer.

Male: Because we are in the area where we pay double.

Planning and Community Development Director Michael "Mischa" Larisch: The cost of sewer is based on usage.

Female: We are hooked into the sewer on Tabor. It cost us $8,000 to hook into it. Our water rate was lower when we just had water. The sewage fee is based on usage, even if it's for watering our yard and not going into the sewer. 

Male: Has there been a hue and cry from Silver Acres with problems on the septic systems?

Larisch: You would have to talk to the Environment Department to get that answer. This meeting is just to discuss the potential to create the designation as a colonia.

Male: What are the other options? We've heard roads, drainage, water, sewer and sidewalks.

Male: It's usually a project, a need, looking for money. This time it's money looking for a project.

Male: We have some dirt roads in the area. When they wash out, we have to go on a single-track road with a car.

Lucero: That is an eligible activity under the colonias designation.

Edwards:  My question to you all is if you are not interested in a sewer system, which many are not, are you interested in the designation to pay for roads? Could we change the priority to roads?

Lucero:  If we do roads, we have to have the infrastructure in place, so we don't have to dig up the roads to put in new water pipes or sewage pipes.

Female: One of my priorities is to get off propane and go to natural gas.

Lucero: I'm not sure we can do that with this funding mechanism. You have to make arrangements with the gas company.

Male: For Ridge Road and all the roads off it, I would suggest streetlights.

Several: No, no, no…!

Female: What if you come up with a description without Silver Acres? Go into the more rural parts. Most of us are happy with the way Silver Acres is.

Lucero: I would have to do research. I wouldn't want to see a failure of the water pipeline and then have an emergency. 

We have 38 designated colonias in the region. Silver City already has the designation. Indian Hills has the designation. In 1990, only the counties could designate. Now the counties can only designate unincorporated areas.

Male: I think you should designate the sewer lines.

Lucero: The scenario is if the county decides to designate the area as a colonia, then we would work with the residents to determine what project you want. There's really no other federal funding available, except for loans.

Browne: What is the deadline?

Lucero: The Notice of Intent deadline is Jan 3, and the application is due in February.

Female: Say we want a letter of intent for roads.

Male: Wouldn't the first piece be a preliminary engineering report? We can do a master plan.

Browne: How much would an engineering report cost?

Lucero: About $250,000 for an engineering assessment.

Male: For myself, I would like to see the colonias designation. It will cost thousands to replace a septic system. If we get hooked up to sewer, it would be a benefit to me.

Lucero: It costs $10,000 to $15,000 to replace a septic system.

County General Service Director Randy Villa: My septic system collapsed in 2006. It cost me around $12,000 to $15,000 to replace. I want people to understand that this is an opportunity where there are needs. Speaking for myself, and I live out there, it's an opportunity to get on the sewer system.

Lucero: I agree that it's an opportunity. Then, we can look at the specific needs.

Female: I don't want contaminated ground water. We have a problem if we have something that is working, and we don't want to be forced to be part of a sewer system.

Female: I think we should be able to opt out. Let's do the designation.

Lucero: Let's consider the designation, then we can determine the project. Colonias encourages another public meeting at that time.

Ponce: Say we designate Silver Acres as a colonia. If we're not sure of the project, what's the harm?

Lucero: There is no harm. It gives us more time for input. We can apply for funding next year, if not this year.

Edwards: Ridge Road. Can it work for that as a project? Can we do a project and the needs assessment at the same time?

Lucero: We could do the design of Ridge Road. The city could apply for one portion and the county also. It takes collaboration, and, yes, we can do the needs assessment at the same time.

Browne: If we add the needs assessment, it would be paid by the Colonias Infrastructure Fund. It's an annual application. We have a year to take advantage of it. Ridge Road is a project that needs to be done.

Ponce: EMS, Police and the public traffic need that road. We don't want to force anything down people's throats. I'm here to hear input and learn more. We can hear what your priority is. I think the designation is good. If we can agree on that intent and then look at projects.

Lucero: The CIF is the only place we can get funding of $1 million. It takes a year to 18 months to get Colonias funding, whereas for federal funding, it can take one to three years.

Edwards: I think the colonias designation is good. If we want a conversation about projects, we need to do an assessment. Ridge Road is a viable project.

Lucero: There may be pockets where there are needs. It's about making sure that you're taken care of. I want to make sure we get the money we are entitled to. I will always tell you if a project is viable and will meet the criteria and requirements.

Male: I just want to point out that at the corner of Tabor and Lance, there is a sinkhole that is at least 5 feet wide.

[The session concluded.]