[Editor's Note: As a result of the more than 5-hour special meeting on Sept. 7, 2021, this is the fourth of a multi-part series of articles and covers the ARPA discussion]

By Mary Alice Murphy

The special meeting of the Grant County Commission on Sept. 7, 2021 took place 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. In this article, they discussed the ARPA funding.

You can read the first three installments at https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/67319-grant-county-commission-holds-special-meeting-to-address-icip-and-arpa-priorities-090721-part-1, https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/67408-grant-county-commission-holds-special-meeting-to-address-icip-and-arpa-priorities-090721-part-2 and https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/67424-grant-county-commission-holds-special-meeting-to-address-icip-and-arpa-priorities-090721-part-3 .

Planning and Community Development Director Priscilla Shoup began with the list of items proposed for ARPA funding. "Some were proposed by the public, some by county staff and some by commissioners."

She began the presentation with the first one on the list, which is the county-owned day care center. It had to close due to end of contract with the previous provider. The proposal to run the center from El Grito, Inc., asks for $161,080 to get it up and running for at least the first year.

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce noted that at a previous meeting the commissioners had approved up to $165,000 plus another $80,000 for repairs.

He asked that Shoup present the first few items on the list and let the commissioners discuss them as a whole.

Chief Procurement Officer Randy Hernandez, who has been attending webinars on how counties are allowed to spend the ARPA funding, said he believes the childcare center is eligible as it supports the public health response, addresses disparities in public health outcomes and addresses childhood health or welfare.

The second item addressed the needed repairs at a cost of $80,000 and also qualifies for ARPA for the same reasons. The request came from Jason Lockett, Facilities Maintenance and Grounds superintendent.

The following item is a project to expand and improve broadband access to rural areas of Grant County. It was proposed by Martha Cooper, who lives in the Gila Valley and works for The Nature Conservancy. No estimate is given, but Hernandez said it is eligible for funding due to broadband infrastructure being specifically named in the act and it would serve unserved or underserved households, but would need a cost estimate.

Ponce said from what he is hearing from others, this item should be tabled until the commission gets more information from the schools and how they will be using their federal funding.

Next came the North Hurley Lift Station at a cost of about $250,000. It, too, is eligible for the ARPA funding as it addresses water and sewer infrastructure, clean water projects and would construct, improve and repair wastewater treatment plants. Lockett made the request.

The Tyrone wastewater improvements is asking for $423,000 for design and $4.311 million for construction. It also qualifies as it addresses the same eligible items as the above project. The Tyrone Property Owners Association made the request.

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne asked that the $4.3 million be reduced to $333,781. "We should put this one on the look-at-later list."

Another one that meets the same water-related qualifications is the Silver Acres water/sewer improvements, with a request of $275,000 for a preliminary engineering report (PER). The alternate request is $150,000 for design, if the PER is accomplished with other funding.

Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero said that the ICIP (Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan) should ask for the $150,000 for the PER. If that is not received, then the request for ARPA should be the $150,000 plus the $275,000 for design.

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said the PER is needed first to determine is the residents want a project designed.

The next item asked for funding for a comprehensive study to create a continuum of care for behavioral/mental health in Grant County. The request is for $20,000 to do the study. It qualifies for ARPA funding because it supports the public health response, improves the design and execution of health and public health programs and provides impact evaluation and data analysis.

Edwards pointed out that in January, Gila Regional Medical Center and Hidalgo Medical Services together hired a study by Coker for the feasibility of re-opening the behavioral health unit at GRMC. "The study showed that the hospital would continue to lose about $1.5 million a year with a reopened BHU. The study said that the community needed to address substance abuse issues first. I've been meeting with (HMS CEO) Dan Otero, Tu Casa [the county-owned substance abuse treatment center], which has never created a business plan and is also losing money. It doesn't have enough income to pay for it to be open 24 hours a day, so it still has regular hours."

She continued that a calculation had determined that for it to be self-sustaining financially, it would require an area with about 200,000 population. "HMS made a request for $50,000 to do a feasibility study on whether crisis stabilization would help." Such treatment would require 24 hours a day treatment for at least 14 days. "If Tu Casa [which is managed by HMS] could do beds at its facility for stabilization, it might be able to get funding. We still don't know what we need to be able to get Tu Casa open 24/7. HMS has asked Dr. Lindstrom to do a study to address crisis stabilization. His initial take is we don't have enough population. Even Doña Ana County doesn't have enough population. So, we're trying to do what we can do with strategies, such as doing 'No Wrong Door' services at GRMC where the BHU was."

Edwards said the Stepping Up Program at the county detention Center has been using the intercept model of seven steps. "We're working on all the steps except for the crisis piece. This money requested is to do the study. $20,000 would come from Grant County, $20,000 from Silver City and $10,000 each from Gila Regional and HMS for the study.

The following item requests $58,000 to rehabilitate the Grant County Courthouse sewer line, which would reline the clay pipe with PVC equivalent. It qualifies for ARPA because of the water-related needs. Lockett made the request.

Next in the list of requests is for a Health Coordinator position, along with staff. The request for two years is $200,000. This request was made by County Manager Tim Zamora. It would plan and coordinate medical and behavioral health issues as a liaison to Gila Regional. The position would be a full-time coordinator with a part-time grant writer. The request qualifies as it supports the public health response, improves the design and execution of health and public health programs and has targeted consumer outreach.

Zamora said the request is directly related to public comments received and ties into what Edwards had just said. "We have no one on staff right now who can do this job. Ms. Edwards has stepped up to fill the gap, but we are asking for someone on staff that can come to the commissioners and can coordinate health issues. We would need to make sure the grant writer stays focused on recovery from the pandemic. The grant writer could be part-time or contracted out."

Ponce asked if the county would have to ensure that all grant writing was done for pandemic related issues.

Browne noted that there may be guidance that it doesn't have to be 100 percent of the time spent on Covid. "In the schools, we only had to prove 50 percent."

Hernandez said he hadn't read any guidance on the amount of time required. "I know it's not eligible for economic development grant writing."

Browne said the position could probably be looking at future health planning.

Zamora said he was asking for $200,000 for two years primarily for the full-time position. "I'm not sure the exact salary, but I expect we can have the full-time position and cover benefits, with some left over for a part-time staff member."

District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas said he sees the need for a health coordinator, but "I also see a need for a part-time grant writer for all kinds of issues."

Edwards said her thinking was for two positions, with "someone focused on getting government money that is pandemic-related."

Ponce said he didn't want to get everyone going off in different directions. Browne said he thought the position would help focus the issues.

Hernandez pointed out that a grant writer for Covid-related issues is eligible, but not a general grant writer. "This funding is more restrictive than other funding we get and there are more reporting requirements that have to go to the U.S. Treasury."

Zamora said that each specific project is not reported on, but "we will need documentation for each item. I would like to see county staff monitoring this funding, but I would also like to look for other Covid-related funding."

Edwards said there was a need for a grant writer, but also for an administrator to make sure to follow governmental requirements. "I suggest we put $250,000 for this item."

Zamora said right now, he is looking for more staff. "Let's do $300,000 for the two years.

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said: "To Mr. Salas's point, a good grant writer could justify the position. We can't drop this position after two years, because after two years hopefully, we will be receiving enough to support the position. I'm gathering that some grants can perpetuate. But is this one temporary?"

Zamora said it could be possible to continue the position after the two years. "Where do we want to be in two years and beyond? This ARPA funding can help us build a base to figure out what we need. My guess is that we will need to find more funding."

Lucero said a lot of her time is spent writing grants. "Rarely do I do the monitoring and administration of the grant. The ARPA dollars will require a lot of documentation. But every couple of weeks, we get notification of grant opportunities. There is a multitude of opportunities available to us, but we lack the capacity. There will be funding for webinars on broadband, for instance."

Billings asked if the grant writing position could pay for itself.

Lucero said: "Yes."

Ponce agreed on the $300,000 request. Browne noted that the commissioners are authorizing the county manager to determine how to spend the funding.

The following item addressed the request from Spring Creek Road residents for $100,000 to $150,000 for a PER for a sewer extension to the neighborhood to replace aging septic tanks. It meets eligibility for water and sewer infrastructure.

Shoup said the PER is to determine if such a project is feasible for a small number of residences.

Browne noted the request for the PER is for $100,000 for 14 households, while Silver Acres is asking $150,000 for many more households.

Lucero recommended doing the PER for the entire Rosedale Road population to be included. "We can get an estimate for these 12 or 14 residences, but we would have to make clear to them that they would be required to connect to the sewer if the extension were to happen. We also need a conversation with the Silver City town manager to determine if the town wastewater plant has the capacity."

Ponce noted that at a recent public meeting with Silver Acres residents, some had expressed opposition to connecting to a sewer system. "Can we send out a survey to both of these groups to find out if they are willing to connect before we put $100,000 into the engineering report?"

Lucero pointed that a cost benefit ratio enters into it, too. "If only 12 residents would benefit, then it is not cost-effective. We also have to determine if Silver City has the capacity. And if we determine that others don't want to connect, then we could break out an area as a phase."

Browne said there is no point in a survey unless the residents can be given an estimate on how much it would cost them to connect.

Lucero said sometimes funding can provide connection costs for lower-income residents.

The next item was a request for $119,000 for a new sewage grinder/vault for redundancy with the current sewage grinder at the Detention Center. The request came from Lockett.

The following item also came from Lockett for convention center needle point bipolar ionization for the HVAC system for $35,000. It qualifies as a prevention and mitigation measure against Covid-19 as an adaptation to a public facility.

Lockett has said in past meetings that the ARPA funding is an opportunity for the county to catch up with long-overdue maintenance needs. He also proposed a Covid-safe practice project for the administration center at a cost of $400,000, and it qualifies for the same reasons as the HVAC system.

Billings asked: "So how much do we have in ARPA funding so far? Because just the first page ads up to $927,000."

Hernandez said the county has received $2.6 million so far.

Edwards said she added them all together and came up with a total of $2.6 million.

The following item addressed renovations to El Refugio [a shelter for domestic abuse victims] for a cost of $50,000.

Ponce made the request. "I think this is a really important service to the community."

Hernandez said he had heartburn over this one being eligible. "It can be used for Covid-safe practices, but renovations don't appear to be under the Covid umbrella. We would need justification for use of these funds."

Browne noted that the county is allowed to mitigate hardships affected by Covid.

Zamora said he would get information from Tyrone, from El Refugio and for the Veterans Treatment Center initiative.

Edwards brought up a critical incident team as a request from the sheriff. "It's the same sort of thing as the veterans' crisis center. It will help Sheriff Gomez address crises that are due to the pandemic."

A list of non-eligible submissions included a matched savings program for Co.Starters as a general economic development activity and therefore not eligible. Another deemed ineligible for the same reason was a grant writer for Covid-related recovery money. Those that appear not to be within the county's jurisdiction included three within Silver City limits—the Mountain View Road Water Extension; the Visitor Center and parking lot landscaping and "Why are the sidewalks so high" interpretive display. Also not eligible was the Iron Bridge enhancement as a general infrastructure initiative not related to Covid.

Edwards said she would like to come up with something that would pass muster for Co.Starters. "It includes job training, and it falls under small businesses and aid to impacted small businesses. We have a lot of folks who don't want to work in a restaurant because of Covid. We have had 38 Co.Starters graduates."

Browne said he would say no to the Mountain View sewer extension "because it should be something the town would do."

Hernandez agreed because it will enhance the town's services.

Ponce said he has had conversations with the town manager. "We have to look at Grant County as a whole. We need to be good neighbors. When I saw it was not in our jurisdiction, I don't buy that. These municipalities are within Grant County."

Billings said he agreed technically, but "what is the cost benefit ratio if it works?"

Zamora said: "All these PER reports are going to add up. I want them to request some help. The Spring Creek one, if the 12 of them want the extension, they need to do some homework."

Edwards said she doesn't disagree with the jurisdiction, asked if they fit the ARPA.

Billings said he liked the Iron Bridge enhancement, "but we don't have to spend all of the $2.6 million today. Even if we spend half today, we'll have heartburn down the road and want to spend it on other projects. I just don't think we'll be disappointed if we keep $1 million or $1.5 million not spent today. I went out with Mr. Topmiller to Iron Bridge. Is there another way we could fund the enhancement?"

Lucero said the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a potential, and possibly the Water Trust Board.

Shoup reiterated that the Iron Bridge is not eligible because it is infrastructure. Lucero suggested doing research on the Water Trust Board.

Zamora said he had several that might be possible with proper language and a better summary for potential justification—the Veterans Treatment Center, Tyrone, El Refugio, the sheriff's office, Mountain View and Spring Creek roads.

Edwards asked that the commissioners have another chance to go through them, as they did not have to approve all of them today.

The commissioners approved the ICIP list, because it had to be submitted to the state by Sept. 14. [Editor's Note: The final list is at the end of part 3 of this series of articles.]

The commissioners did approve the $161,000 funding for the county-owned childcare center for the first year, as well as the $80,000 for repairs. They also approved the $250,000 for the North Hurley lift station and $150,000 for the Silver Acres PER. Included in the approval were $20,000 for a continuum of care study, $58,000 in funding for the courthouse sewer rehabilitation, $300,000 for the health coordinator, as well as $119,000 for the Detention Center sewage grinder, $35,000 for the conference center HVAC ionization, $400,000 for security upgrades to the administration center, $100,000 for the Veterans Treatment Center, $50,000 for El Refugio, if it is eligible, and $20,000 for crisis intervention, if it is eligible. The total was $1,743,080.

Billings said he had heartburn about the $400,000 for security for the administration building. "Are grants available?"

Hernandez said the first grant for the renovation of the Clerk's office was a private grant for election security and Covid updates.

Zamora said he will make sure to review the plans for the building renovation.

The final portion of the meeting was Assessor Raul Turrieta's report on the property tax mills for the 2021 tax year and will be covered in an additional article.