[Editor's Note: This is part one of what is anticipated to be a multi-part series of articles on the Grant County Commission special meeting of July 20, 2021. This article includes the discussion about ARPA funding]

Photo and article by Mary Alice Murphy

gc commiss and webb 3198Outgoing County Manager Charlene Webb, second from right, accepts a plaque from commissioners, from left Harry Browne, Alicia Edwards, Chris Ponce, Billy Billings (in the back) and Javier "Harvey" Salas.

On the date of what would normally be a work session, commissioners called a special meeting for July 20, 2021, so that action could be taken on several agenda items.

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said the commissioners and county staff wanted to recognize County Manager Charlene Webb for her "outstanding service" to Grant County. He presented her with a plaque.

"I want to thank you for the structure you have built for the directors," Ponce said. "You did a wonderful job running the county and with the budget. When I came on as a commissioner, I was nervous, but you taught me a lot about county government, grants, and projects. We didn't always agree, but I enjoyed that, too, because it opened minds. I respect when you told us that we couldn't do something because of state statute. I always had respect for you. I even offered to buy you horses to get you to stay. Sierra County is lucky to have you."

With no public input, commissioners began a discussion on the American Rescue Plan Act funding.

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said she had a process question. "I understand the money is coming in two different payments."

Financial Officer Linda Vasquez confirmed the two payments and said: "We can get 2 percent of the funding [which totals about $5.3 million] before we start anything."

Edwards asked about the internal process. "How are we going to decide where to spend it?"

Vasquez said when she completes the final budget for approval at the July 27 special meeting, "I will put all the extra funds in and incorporate them into the budget. If we don't have projects decided, we can always do a budget adjustment."

Edwards, echoed by other commissioners, said she didn't think the commissioners would have projects by then.

Vasquez said she would budget the funds and when the decisions are made, she will do an intra-budget adjustment with transfers.

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings asked when the second payment of $2.6 million would arrive. The answer was within a year.

Webb said the money could be requested in May of this year, and the second payment would arrive about 12 months later, "but there are a lot of what ifs on this money, depending on our unemployment rate and such. We could have requested the second payment as early as June, but until we have the unemployment data, it will likely be next year."

She read from the statement, which said what she had just stated. The next phrase said the entities that experienced more than a 2 percent increase in unemployment between February 2020 and the latest data could request a single payment. "There are a whole lot of moving pieces, and every week we get another set of data, so for you today to say we're going to spend this money on this, this and this, I wouldn't waste a whole lot of effort, but you can say these are the areas we want to focus on and then this half of the desk [pointing to the Interim County Manager Randy Villa, Vasquez and Procurement Officer Randy Hernandez] can make sure you are spending it correctly, that we're doing all the reporting requirements, because there's going to be a significant amount of auditing. We are continuing to get more and more guidance. As an example, no one has figured out how to determine the amount of lost revenue. Even the federal government can't help us with that. This is all about your recovery from Covid-19."

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne asked for confirmation that the funding has to be spent by the end of 2024. Villa clarified that all the funding must be expended by the end of 2026. "Encumbered by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026," Browne confirmed.

District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas asked about basic guidelines of what the money can be spent for.

Webb said the guidance has been out for a while and "I've sent you some of that." [Editor's Note: Doesn't Salas read his county emails?]

Webb said the main points are to address community health expenditures; negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency; to replace lost public sector revenue; to provide premium pay for essential workers; and to invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. "Those are the broad areas that it is the intent these monies are for. But all the categories are broken down into more detail. I will send you the link to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, treasury.gov, or Google ARP funding. NACO (National Association of Counties) is sending us a lot of data and guidance and frequently asked questions. We'll send both links."

Billings said he has some ideas, but he thought that a process should be used. "I was thinking, after talking to someone at the gym last night [Randy Hernandez]. He suggested something like the ICIP (Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan) process we have right now. Get everything on a list and get input from county staff and the public. I don't want to drag it out forever, but I think we should be careful how we spend this money. What is your opinion, Manager Webb?"

"I think that's a really good idea," Webb replied. "If you came up with some rating criteria similar to the ICIP and then you could adopt it as a resolution, on how we intend to spend these American Rescue Plan Act funds. That's a really good idea, Randy."

Edwards said she has received a lot of emails from people with suggestions. "How will we address the public interest part?"

Browne said the ICIP process involves public hearings to which people could be invited. They generally have been held in Mimbres, Silver City and Cliff. "Poor Animas gets left out again." [Editor's Note: Animas is in Hidalgo County. Browne probably meant Hachita.]

"What concerns me is knowing the qualifications," Salas said.

Edwards said she thinks there are broad guidelines that "could be released to the public."

Ponce said he would like to see two lists, a list of infrastructure projects and costs. "This may be one-time money and we need to know what in what direction the county needs to head. For instance, the courthouse sewer issues, broadband."

Edwards said the commissioners got a list of what the county needs. "I see more than two lists. We could use the dot exercise at a public hearing to get what the public wants."

"I think the county infrastructure should stay with us," Ponce said. "And also have a list for the public."

Salas noted that some things like wastewater projects could likely be paid with other funding sources.

Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero addressed the issue of how to spend the money.

Lucero gave an update on what's going on statewide and on the federal level on infrastructure. She said the state of New Mexico allocated funds to a group called Pivotal, which is doing work around developing an infrastructure study. "One of the concerns is that I don't know that they have come down here to talk to us about our infrastructure needs. I want to see them present to us. We continue to monitor the proposed infrastructure funding on the federal level that is coming down. Are we ready? Can we tap into those dollars? We know that infrastructure is the basic foundation to everything. I look at a number of things. What is the local government capacity for matching funds or the debt capacity of an entity? If we're unsure of the need, for example Silver Acres. We've applied for funding twice for a preliminary engineering report and we've been denied twice. However, I also know we have issues with water pressure in that area. We also had discussions around wastewater, and we had different opinions, which is fine [some residents wanted to keep their septic systems and others wanted city sewer brought in]. But no one would come in to fund it, because we have no analysis of what the need is or how much it would cost. If we were to apply for money, we need to know an estimated cost and then we could go for design funding. Without an engineering report, we have no clue whether it is adequate or not. A preliminary engineering report is the foundation of any project. It shows we've done our homework. My opinion is you should do a report on both water and wastewater, because there's no guarantee that tomorrow people's minds won't change, because of the cost of doing even a minor repair to a septic tank. And it's just more cost-effective to do a PER for both water and wastewater. And then that tells us that we can go for whatever funding is available for design. If we don't have the basic knowledge of what the needs are, those are the challenges I deal with. Say, it's a road project, is it a school bus route? How many cars go through there in a day? We have the ability to do traffic counts if you want that for you. The other thing I would like to offer to your staff is we do, within the COG, have a process on how to rank projects for prioritization for infrastructure projects. That can help you decide if you need an engineering report or design."

To a question about the Pivotal plan, Lucero said she isn't part of the process, so she couldn't answer that. "If you are doing any study on county capacity for matching funds or debt, I would like to be involved."

Edwards noted it would be nice if the state would take on the broadband issue.

"The challenges with broadband are there are lots of pots of money, but nobody knows who's doing what," Lucero said. "As Commissioner Salas alluded to, you don't want to take ARPA funding if other funding is available elsewhere."

Edwards asked if the commissioners handed a list to Lucero and County Planning and Economic Development Director Priscilla Shoup, "you can tell us what ARPA would be best for and what other funding is available, right?"

"Absolutely," Lucero said. "We're dealing with challenges with the federal government not being able to figure out how to address water and wastewater projects, which concerns me."

Lucero suggested the county do the ICIP process and the ARPA process at the same time. "In our calls this week, for instance, the Tourism Department wanted tourism-related projects. We need them in at least the top 5 of the ICIP, because Tourism will have a separate pot of money."

Browne liked the idea of doing the ICIP and ARPA at the same time, "as long as we make an effort not to bias things toward infrastructure."

Billings asked if each commissioner should come up with his or her list and staff could compile them into one list. "We will get input from the public, but we also need input from elected officials and department directors."

Lucero noted the ICIP is due in September.

Villa said the county has compiled an infrastructure list. "We are working on issues that we think can be funded with this ARPA money."

Salas asked if the ARPA funding could be used for preliminary engineering reports, so "we could get other funding?"

Lucero said some funding other than ARPA is available for PERs, but some are capped, or some are for only 50 percent of the cost. "The excess is sometimes hard to find."

Salas asked about the "tremendous amount of effluent from the wastewater plants."

"That project got to a certain percent design," Lucero said. "I can't tell you what stalled it."

Ponce said he has been meeting with the mayors of Santa Clara, Bayard and Hurley. "We need to start talking with Priscilla (Lucero)."

Salas asked what Silver City does with its effluent, and another question: "Can we spend this money in a community such as Bayard?"

Lucero said she believes the jurisdiction for this county money is primarily the unincorporated areas. "Th only way some of them can get any funding for projects is to come to the county. Some don't have mutual domestics, for instance. If you spend the money in a municipality, the unincorporated areas feel like they have been bypassed. Bayard received I think $500,000, Hurley got $250,000, Santa Clara, $400,000 and Silver City, $2.2 million."

Salas said the county heard a presentation on a broadband proposal to use some of the ARPA funding.

"We need a good understanding of where funding for broadband is coming from," Lucero said. "We have to weigh the process to make sure it is fair to all. We're waiting for an RFP (request for proposal) to come out. It's hard to figure out who's doing what and why."

Browne said he was going to just add to the confusion. "The schools and PED (Public Education Department) are getting tons of money that can be used for broadband. Aldo Leopold Charter School with 170 students is slated to get $440,000 in ARPA funding. Maybe partnerships can be made?"

"Absolutely," Lucero said. "That's why I let my staff person be the chairman of the state broadband committee. Schools are getting a lot. I will be happy to bring staff in to talk to you about this."

Edwards said she agreed with combining the ICIP and ARPA hearings. "Can we schedule them and structure them?"

Lucero suggested that the ARPA funding should be discussed first and then turn over ones that would fit capital outlay better into the ICIP.

Villa said this year only one was scheduled for Aug. 4, because "last year, we went to Mimbres and Cliff and no one showed up."

Edwards said she thought this year was different. "For unincorporated areas and ARPA funding, there is no other way to participate."

Lucero said she would work with Shoup to develop an agenda and categories.

Edwards said it was up to the five commissioners to get their constituents to the meetings.

Browne asked if anything had changed on the infrastructure list that had been sent to the commissioners.

Facility Maintenance and Grounds Superintendent Jason Lockett said some of the projects had already been started. "We have added a lift station for $42,000 at North Hurley, but we need pumps, too, and I have those quotes. For the option for sewage, I suggest we get a duplex for duplication. The immediate need for North Hurley is the pumps. We still have a few septic tanks, but most of the sewage from the area goes to the wastewater plant. We are doing environmental studies, so we can close down wells and rehab the lift station."

Salas asked about Bataan Park.

Lockett said there was no longer a sewage problem there, because of a new lift station, but "the water pressure is low, which would be a good use for this money."

Webb asked if the water comes from Santa Clara. Lockett confirmed that it did, and "we need to have pressure pumps."

Villa said they closed the bathrooms when the toilets wouldn't flush, because kids were throwing rocks into the toilets and blocking them up. "There's something about Bataan Park and kids and rocks. That's why we brought in portapotties."

Lockett said the county was about to get the old cargo containers out of there, too.

Villa said the county has a quote on the sewer project out there. "We want to encourage the commission to keep up with the changing information on the NACO website and the Treasury department changes on the treasury.gov website."

Browne asked if the county had any further information on the project that WNM Communications had proposed for broadband in the mining district.

"They are waiting to hear from you," Webb said. "The amount they gave was their estimate. They were interested in your subsidizing or funding or if it's still an issue. I don't know what to tell you."

Browne asked what the minimum amount they wanted from the county to proceed with the process.

Webb said the request was for $1.7 million to $2 million and that "they could partner with you. They don't have any way of knowing about many customers will come out of the project."

Browne said he thought the company should just talk to county staff.

Salas said he would like to talk to the school boards about the funding they are getting and "if we could share the expense."

Ponce agreed and said it would be "good to know how we can help them or how we can work together."

Sheriff Frank Gomez, who is a member of the Cobre School board, said he would talk to the school and get back to Villa.

Edwards said it might make sense for the school districts to meet together before "they talk to us."

Ponce asked that the Aug. 4 meeting for the ICIP and ARPA hearings be changed as he wouldn't be able to attend.

Villa said he would get with Shoup to come up with alternative dates.

Ponce said he has been struggling with the mental health crisis in Grant County. "Can some of this money be used for this? How do we get people who need help into these programs?"

Hernandez said the NACO guidance mentioned this. "The suggestion was for mental health vouchers."

Ponce said he would like to reach out to people who need the help.

Hernandez said the guidance talked about the underserved populations.

Salas suggested pots of money for those who can't afford equipment or beds. "El Refugio comes to mind that needs equipment, and maybe beds for Tu Casa. What do they need?"

Ponce said he had talked to Rachel Sierra, El Refugio director. "They need not just equipment, but programs."

Edwards liked the idea of vouchers. "One of the challenges for those seeking help is the co-pay. We know the data on domestic violence. Tu Casa [Edwards is a board member] got some junior money from the Legislature this year, but everything is hanging up on the need for a pro forma business plan. Everything about mental health is screwed up. I would like to see the pro forma business plan. Tu Casa can offer crisis triage for 23½ hours, and they have an intensive outpatient plan, but where do they go besides where they came from. If we don't have services, they just go back to the problem. For crisis intervention, they need 14 days. That's the gap for which we need a bridge. The money from the state will help us figure out a business plan. We can't have the county helping with funding because it's recurring. We need to make Tu Casa work as a business. It's also tied to the Detention Center, which also has big gaps."

Ponce agreed. Law enforcement is taking people to jail—"people who are crying for help. Law enforcement can take them to Gila Regional Medical Center, but without the behavioral health unit, it is temporary. We need different place to take these people."

Edwards said the challenge is the staff is working on crisis intervention. "But the need doesn't stop while we're trying to figure out how to fix the issue."

The next article will begin with the budget hearing for the fiscal year 2021-22.

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