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

By Mary Alice Murphy

Grant County commissioners met in special meeting on Sept. 7, 2021 to discuss how to prioritize the ICIP (Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan) and how to expend the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding the county has received and will receive. The first half at about $2.6 million has arrived in the county’s bank account and the second half of a like amount is anticipated with no set date for a total of about $5.2 million. 

The first in this series, which covered discussions on the first two items on the ICIP, can be read at https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/67319-grant-county-commission-holds-special-meeting-to-address-icip-and-arpa-priorities-090721-part-1

Planning and Community Development Planner Priscilla Shoup presented the third item on the ICIP. The request is for $750,000 for design and construction to enhance the Bataan Memorial Park Pavilion. She said the project would include ADA restrooms to make them accessible to the disabled. Potential funding sources for the project include capital outlay (from the NM Legislature), CDBG (Community Development Block Grant), Colonias Infrastructure Fund. “It is not on the ARPA list because it does not qualify,” she said.

She noted the pavilion was not included in the current project of improving drainage and ADA at the park.

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said the pavilion would be a good neighbor to Santa Clara and the Fort Bayard projects, as well as leading to the trails project, “which is also underway.”

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne suggested that the project should stand at No. 3 in priority, because of the almost complete ADA project and with the exterior of the structure in place. 

District 2 Commissioner Javier “Harvey” Salas said he believes the pavilion could be expanded. “Adding a kitchen would complement Fort Bayard and be an enhancement to Bataan Memorial Park. I think it could be a draw to tourists and residents alike. If the trails could connect Bataan to Little Walnut that could also be a draw.”

Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero said that CDBG funding goes up only to $750,000, although there are discussions to expand the limit to $1 million. “If we can get match funding from capital outlay, that would help us qualify for CDBG. It will have to be designed. That’s why it’s in the top five.”

Salas noted that the project is for economic development and tourism. “We are already putting money into the memorial to renovate it. I think it could be a draw for tourists and could be used for other events, such as Senior Olympics.”

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards asked why the building has three large doors.

Salas said when it was designed, opening the doors would allow for no restriction to the capacity of groups to use it.

Edwards said she appreciates the vision but didn’t think the vision and the building match. “Do we want to invest three-quarters of a million dollars into this building? I’m not suggesting we take it off the ICIP, but I’m wondering if there is a better way to go other than investing all this money in THIS building. Is there a way to accomplish the vision with this building or should we tear down this building?”

County Manager Tim Zamora said if “we are looking at an overall vision, this building could be a maintenance shop.”

Ponce said he wouldn’t go for tearing the building down. “The Mining District needs a place to play ball. I would like to see an overall plan, with the hiking, biking, ATV use. What is our vision? I think we should invest in making this building accessible.”

“Clearly, when we have a whole vision, we may need a maintenance shop,” Edwards said. “I completely agree on providing outdoor recreation opportunities, and it would be amazing for veterans. Is it possible to add it to our comprehensive plan?”

Lucero said the county could do a comprehensive plan for the park and the pavilion. “Start with a plan, and if there is money left over it can go into design.”

Salas noted the county did the infrastructure improvements first. “Wouldn’t it be logical to go to the next phase using capital outlay and CDBG funding?”

Lucero said the item could keep the general language but commissioners must be aware that CDBG requires a 10 percent match. “Then you all have the ability to decide how to phase it out, if you change the title of the item to Bataan Memorial Park improvements.”

Edwards asked if the county could apply to the New Mexico Finance Authority for $50,000 for a planning grant. Lucero said the county only qualifies for $12,500 from the NMFA.

“Then we could take $37,500 out of capital outlay and hire someone to create the plan,” Edwards suggested. “Then we would have a phased plan we could took at every year.”

Lucero said the ICIP could have the future funding phases put into it. 

Shoup went to No. 4 on the ICIP—Grant County Administration Center Security Renovations, which requests $400,000 with a plan for bulletproof glass and for Covid-safe and new flooring for the Sheriff’s office, as well as for the safety of employees and residents in other departments. 

She said it is eligible for capital outlay and is also on the ARPA list.

Edwards asked if $400,000 was enough. Shoup said it was an estimate from Facilities Maintenance and Grounds Superintendent Jason Lockett.

Clerk Marisa Castrillo said it cost $160,000 for renovations to make the clerk’s office Covid-safe for employees and voters.

Browne said he would rather take it out of the top five and use ARPA funding for the projects.

Lucero agreed.

No. 5 addressed the Cliff-Gila County Fairgrounds water system for $250,000 for a new well and storage. At present the fairgrounds uses water from the schools next door. “We would want at least a 10,000-gallon storage tank, and the well would be deep. The funding would also help with drainage at the site. The county would like its own water source and system. It qualifies for capital outlay funding, but not ARPA,” Shoup said.

Lockett said the need is for an entire water system. “The water piping is the issue. The estimate includes the whole system to get it off Cliff Schools, so it is a county project, not a fairgrounds project.” He said it might require an updated estimate. “We have to talk to the school administration to see if they have problems with us drilling a well.”

Browne he recalled the county having to truck in water.

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings clarified that was for watering the rodeo grounds to cut down the dust.

Lucero said the county potentially could do planning with an NMFA loan.

Billings said the project reminds him of Bataan. “Maybe we need to update a plan for the whole fairgrounds.”

Ponce asked where the county was on new bleachers for the facility.

“The funding was given to us and then taken away,” Lockett said. “Then they gave it back to us. We are ready to proceed. 80 percent of the project is ready to go. As soon as the fair is over, we will make the bleachers ADA accessible and create 3 ADA parking places.”

Edwards said: “On the subject of planning. We are suggesting a comprehensive plan for Bataan Park and for the fairgrounds. Are there any other areas of the county outdoor recreation that need planning? Can we put them all in one place and put it on the ICIP?”

Lucero said the Shooting Range also needs planning, so “Yes.”

Lockett added the North Hurley Park, a basketball court in Hachita and the Gila Community Park and Center.

Edwards asked if they could be piece-mealed out or do an outdoor recreation plan. “We have recreation areas that attract different residents and visitors.”

Lucero said in the future Land and Water Conservation funds can be put to this effort.

Edwards suggested leaving the planning part in the Bataan Park improvements for now as a separate item on the ICIP. “Part of the work is how to integrate this all into the outdoor recreation comprehensive plan. Maybe we should leave Bataan and the fairgrounds separate.”

Lucero recommended development of a Grant County parks and recreation plan. “What hasn’t been done can be put into another ICIP item.”

Zamora noted the needs at Bataan Park and the fairgrounds are needing to be fixed now.

Chief Procurement Officer Randy Hernandez said: “We have funding for the fairgrounds and for the Gila community park.”

Lucero said the county has so many needs throughout the area.

Ponce invited speakers to talk about a veterans’ treatment center. Sixth Judicial District Attorney Michael Renteria said several people are working on initiatives for the treatment center for veterans. “My priority is public safety. I want to make it clear that our priority is holding offenders accountable and taking care of victims. I was a social worker before I was a lawyer. It has to start with accountability. We are trying to find alternatives to incarceration for the non-violent offenders. Violent crimes are increasing. I don’t recall this level of domestic violence, drug abuse and alcoholism. It starts at the misdemeanor level.”

Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez said he is a veteran and an advocate for veterans. “There is a history of veterans’ treatment courts. They were created in response to veterans’ mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse. The treatment courts give them the opportunity to seek help. Research suggests that community services are not adequate to meet veterans’ needs. It follows the drug court model, where participants are regularly tested for drug and alcohol use. They receive awards for doing well, and consequences if they don’t do well. The treatment court gives them an opportunity to straighten out their lives.”

Jean Becerra, Sixth Judicial District Court programs coordinator, said that the veterans’ treatment courts help those who are suffering PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and self-medicating. There is not a VA (veterans affairs) clinic in southwest New Mexico meeting these needs. Albuquerque is too far away. A veterans treatment court would help a veteran if he’s in an accident or a situation with no injuries. It would require a treatment specialist and would also help the families of the veterans. Sexual assault is at a high level. “We think we owe it to our veterans who are taught to be warriors but not taught how to be civilians again. The court would provide housing and a job and take care of the families.”  

Renteria said the initiative is to get the veteran at the misdemeanor level and catch them early at the start of the problems. “We have three veterans’ treatment courts in New Mexico—one each in Albuquerque, Alamogordo and Las Cruces. The real work is behind the scenes. We have several judges ready to participate in such an effort, including (Magistrate Judge Maurine) Laney. We will need help from the jail administration. (Jail Administrator Mike) Carillo is gone [he recently retired], but we are doing our homework. Funding, of course, will be a factor. We have restorative justice and we’re trying to create a program for juveniles. We also want to be part of the crisis intervention training.”

He said catching the offenses early and ordering the offenders to treatment would work best. “I believe in second chances, but by the time it’s the third, fourth or fifth chance, it’s harder. I think the population of veterans here at about 10 percent is significant.”

Browne said he believes it is exactly the approach needed. “I am very supportive. Does the VA provide funding?”

Martinez said to get the initiative off the ground would require around $270,000. “ARPA is focusing on mental health. The program would provide counselors and we would be required to have a coordinator. We are not the only judicial district looking to open veterans’ treatment centers. Three other counties are also looking, Taos, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties. About 175,000 veterans have issues with this abuse.”

Ponce asked for clarification that the federal government is not putting forward funding for these initiatives. He was told the VA does not have any funding for the initiative.

Browne said once the program is established, potentially it could apply for federal funding. “Once we have the data and set up the program and got federal funding, the Legislature might want to support it once we show it works.”

Salas said he had been really surprised at how many veterans have mental health issues. “I’m for anything we can do to keep them out of the penal system. I think it sounds like a great program.”

Martinez said the ultimate goal is to reduce repeat offenses. It’s a very stringent program.

Hernandez said the use of ARPA funds is for responding to the Covid emergency, and how things are tied into the public health due to Covid and believed this program would not qualify.

Browne asked if there were some test to prove that things were exacerbated by Covid. “We would have to clearly show the connection.”

Ponce said it seems to him that there were a lot of stresses due to the lockdown.

Edwards said the county need to make efforts to determine justification for the expenditures of the ARPA funding. “I suggest that Mr. Renteria and Ms. Becerra come up with language showing how Covid made the problem worse.”

Billings said the county still needs a VSO (veterans’ service officer).

Edwards said the position had actually been posted. “They got applications, but the state drug their feet so long they had to reopen the applications.”

Salas said it seemed to him that if the county can justify the need for the veterans’ treatment court, “then we can use the funding. There is no ARPA board overseeing it, is there?”

Hernandez said his comment is based on his opinion after reading and rereading the Act plus participating in webinars on how the money can be used. “You may think it is eligible, but the auditors may not agree. We must clearly justify the expenditures.” He also noted the efforts are also part of the RISE program at the jail. 

Renteria said the participants would also need other services. “I think we can do language to justify the expenditure. Covid has affected a lot of people and amplified their problems. We owe this service to those who served us and to their families. I think it’s why we need it now.”

To a question about who audits the ARPA expenditures, County Financial Officer Linda Vasquez said she thinks it will be the same as the CARES Act funding for the hospital. “There will be a system to determine if expenditures qualified. Our auditors will probably determine the qualifications.”

Hernandez said they were trying to think ahead. “We know it has to be justified, so we can stand behind it.”

Edwards said she appreciated the staff’s attention to the issue. “It would be ugly if the federal government came back and said the $2.6 million is owed back to them.”

Ponce said it amazes him that the funding can’t be used to fix people but can be used to fix a sewer system. 

Renteria said integrity is the priority. “We will try to justify the program. It’s to protect taxpayers. We’re ready to make it happen.”

After this discussion, the commissioners went back to the ICIP. The continuation of the discussion will come in the next article.

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