[Editor's Note: As a result of this meeting starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m., this is the first of a multi-part series of articles.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

The special meeting of Sept. 7, 2021 began with District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce thanking Taysha Walter, who has resigned her position as executive assistant to take a job in Las Cruces where her husband is working.

"This is her last special meeting. I want to personally thank her for everything," Ponce said. "I thought it would be hard to fill the shoes of our prior executive assistant, Bernadette [Coleman]. You, Taysha, not only filled her shoes, you exceeded it. You've done an excellent job."

During public input, Allyson Siwik, executive director of Gila Resources Information Project, said she specifically wanted to support the use of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding to Grant County to hire a health coordinator to "support the public health response to Covid-19 and other future public health or environmental emergencies.; improve the design and execution of health and public health programs; and provide targeted consumer outreach."

She noted at the at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, little infrastructure was in place to respond to the Covid emergency at the local level. Siwik and District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards, "wearing her Healthy Kids, Health Communities hat" convened a group of nonprofits, local Department of Health staff and other public health experts to assess weekly needs. They also started a weekly radio program and a website grantcountycoronavirusupdate.org.

The effort evolved into the Emerging Infectious Disease Task Force under the Grant County Community Health Council led by health expert Renée Despres to coordinate dissemination of public health and economic response information to the community.

Siwik also pointed out the "inequities in access to information," with about 30 percent of Grant County households not having access to the internet, "and we have inequities in access to health and social services," which worsened during Covid-19. With a disconnect between the civil and county responses, due to the lack of local governmental health and human services, she said funding a health coordinator and staff could provide the infrastructure to bridge the two activities to prepare the community for the next crisis.

She also said that GRIP has requested a $20,000 grant from the Con Alma Foundation to do an evaluation of the civil response and a feasibility assessment of establishing county level health and human services coordination.

If the award is not received, she suggested using ARPA money for the assessment and feasibility study.

The next portion of this article begins to address the ICIP (Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan) that commissioners must approve each year. The deadline is Sept. 14 to submit to the state for the purpose of determining legislative capital outlay priorities of Grant County, as well as the potential for other funding, which also require the project(s) be on the ICIP with estimates of costs.

County Community Development and Planning Director Priscilla Shoup began presenting the top 10.

She noted that she, County Manager Tim Zamora and Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero had worked together to develop the list.
No. 1 was the Little Walnut Road improvements. "This includes the construction costs at $2.45 million. It would cover three miles with sidewalks and bike lanes to ensure the safety of residents. It is eligible for funding through capital outlay, Department of Transportation, Colonias, CDBG (Community Development Block Grants), but not ARPA funding."

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said he would like to cover each item one at a time.

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne asked if the design was already funded. Shoup replied that the design should be completed in October, and it had been funded through Colonias.

Lucero said the strategy is that "we know there will be DOT funding, so we want to be ready. If awarded, by the time we get the grant agreement it would be in September 2022. I also want to reiterate that Tourism has received several million dollars, so that's also a potential for funding. Federal funding also has another pot under tourism. This project has a lot of possibilities for funding, including from the governor's office, especially since the town already has state funding to the city limits. We're awaiting the agreement for $500,000 to Silver City. Once we get the agreement and funding, construction will proceed."

To a question about CDBG funding, Shoup said as soon as the Bataan Memorial Park ADA and drainage project is complete in October, the county will be eligible to apply for another CDBG grant next year.

Lucero said the Little Walnut project fits a lot of categories, including infrastructure funding being considered at the federal level. "Keep in mind when you submit the ICIP that any of the top five can be eligible for capital outlay."

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said with Silver City already working on the portion within city limits, it's a project that has a lot of opportunity to fund, including a link to outdoor recreation and to the Waterworks building [the original location of the water system for Silver City.]

Lucero said the potential for funding can also be found in a federal earmark for the Continental Divide Trail, which Little Walnut leads to. "That funding still has to go through the committee and budgeting process."

District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas asked what part would the ICIP fund.

Lucero said the ICIP is a planning tool and gives extra points for any funding request. "Our region, last legislative session, received $20 million for roads because we do all the processes to plan and be ready to do construction. We don't yet know how the federal funds that came to the state will be spent."

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said he sees reasons why Little Walnut would be a priority, "but I see others that would be higher for me that are out of the top 10."

Lucero said she helped prioritize the order of the projects, "because of knowing about funding sources. For instance, for the Sheriff's Department fleet replacement, there is no other funding other than capital outlay. The Silver Acres water and sewer project has other potential funding sources. That's why it's not in the top five, but it's still in the top 10. I feel comfortable with this order of priority."

She said she is also keeping a list for items that can be funded with Tourism dollars. "They can come from government funding and for the first time, we got funding for the Waterworks building and the CDT."

Lucero advised the commissioners to prioritize the top five projects to send to the legislature, the governor and to the Tourism Department. "That's why we did well last year, because we had allocations coming from different pots of money."

Ponce noted that the legislators only have a certain amount of money. "If we have Little Walnut No. 1 and ask for $500,000, then we shoot ourselves in the foot for the sheriff's fleet."

"There is no other option other than capital outlay for the sheriff's fleet," Lucero said. "If that is your No. 1 priority, then I suggest you move it to No. 1, as long as you keep Little Walnut in the top five or top 10, we'll be OK."

Edwards asked if there were any others that could only be paid for using capital outlay.

Lucero said the only other ones would be the Grant County Administration Center security and safety project, the Cliff Fairgrounds water system and the Shooting Range.

Browne said that the shooting range could qualify for Pittman-Robertson funding and Land and Water Conservation funding.

Shoup went to No. 2, the Sheriff's fleet replacement, which requests $880,000 for the next 1-5 years to purchase and equip vehicles. "Half the fleet has 90,000 to 180,000 miles and they don't quality for ARPA."

Ponce said since public safety is a priority it should be No. 1. "We need a county vehicle replacement plan. For three years, I've been asking for it, but we haven't been able to create a plan. I would hope we can develop a plan to replace vehicles. I understand the fines for citations go to the state, unlike the town where they keep them and put them into a fund. I also think that rather than buying all new equipment, we can put usable equipment from old vehicles into the new vehicles."

Browne said he knows that 90,000 miles used to be high mileage, but "with the new technology I think they're still good. Also, the sheriff is asking for all SUVs. It strikes me that he could assign vehicles, so they don't need to all be SUVs."

Ponce said with some of the county roads, if a call comes in, a sedan might not be able to go down the road.

Edwards said if the sheriff is dividing the county into districts as he has suggested, then he could look at how vehicles are assigned. "90,000 miles doesn't sound like much, but with a new vehicle, if the computer goes out, it doesn't roll. We need to think about a replacement plan."

Zamora said the county will convene a working group encompassing all departments led by the Road Maintenance Department. "We just started pulling it together last week. We need to decide not only what type of vehicles, but the gas consumption and mileages, but also where we will get the funding to continue it."

Salas said SUVs are more complicated, cost more and require more maintenance.

The next article will begin with the same cast of characters and continuing with the ICIP list.

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