By Mary Alice Murphy

[Editor's Note: The meeting went for a bit more than five hours, with a very short break. Several articles will cover the presentations and the review of the regular agenda, in addition to county and commissioner reports. Part 1 will cover the first presentation.]

With no public input, either by Zoom or in person, Grant County commissioners heard the first presentation, which addressed The Water Trust Board and House Bill 200, as requested by District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings. He had asked Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero to do the presentation.

Lucero, who was recently appointed to the Water Trust Board to represent the southwest New Mexico corner of the state, said she has participated in a couple of committee meetings. "It's pretty apparent that they were learning during the legislation process that it was important to have local representation. We really wanted to give the four counties the opportunity to give input. Things that have brought me comfort include that a lot of people were asking if the money can be transferred to other parts of the state. No, it is only for the four-county area."

She noted that the Water Trust Board itself requires legislative appropriations. "That's one reason why the process the Water Trust Board uses is so onerous. The New Mexico Unit Fund money is not attached to legislative appropriations, so the process will be much simpler, similar to the Colonias application process. There currently is a survey out and I would ask you to forward it to others. This week, on Thursday (Oct. 14), I will be presenting on the most recent survey responses. I have already brought up that there needs to be geographic distribution of the funding among the four counties. Second, I want to advocate for the different levels of capacity in the region. What a municipality can do differs greatly from what a ditch can do. Municipalities can have matching money, whereas a small domestic water association might have no way to provide matching funding, and a ditch association has very little capacity to raise a match. So, one of my recommendations is that I would like to see separate categories for municipalities, water associations and ditch associations, for instance, again, similar to Colonias. The other thing that I see is capacity for groups such as ditches that have no budget, no Open Meetings Act resolution, no meetings. The challenges are not only on the water side, but the process does not touch the other challenges. I want the ability to be flexible, so that money allocated can be shown how it can benefit the communities."

Another option for help, she said is the Rural Opportunities Task Force. "It's a way to support entities that lack matching funds. One of the things I've seen more of with Colonias is a much more simplified application. That's why I recommend following somewhat the same model for the New Mexico Unit Fund money."

"We are also having conversations around having a planning fund to help pay for the preliminary engineering report so the applicant can make a good estimate for construction," Lucero continued. "We also have to take into account the economic development possible with the funding. What I would like to see is the more than $80 million become $160 million through leveraging with other funding sources to expand the opportunities to area entities. I want to see everyone get assistance for the long term. I would also like to take your comments to present to the committee. I would also like to see an application ready by next spring. I am asking for additional staff for my office to increase capacity locally as the Council of Government to enhance opportunities for local communities. We are COG, District 5, here."

Billings said he asked for the presentation so that people could make more intelligent comments. "Are there any limits on what the money can be used for?"

"We're not there yet," Lucero said. "I will also present to the Legislature this week at the Rural Opportunities Task Force Interim Committee. I will explain the differences between types of entities and make sure that the applications are done in a fair process."

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce, who meets regularly with Mining District mayors said they have a project. "I support them. I will ask if we can sit down together with you to discuss their project."

"This is the time to do it," Lucero said. "If I know the needs, there are more ways I can advocate."

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne thanked Billings for arranging the presentation. "I'm happy to know that you want to make it a not over-burdensome process. I like the approach of different categories. Is there one for counties?"

Lucero said one category should absolutely be local government.

Browne said maybe it could include watershed restoration. "How about the soil and water conservation districts?"

Lucero said the soil and water conservation districts are considered a political subdivision, so they would also qualify for the application process and potential funding. "Maybe it could be an additional category. Watershed restoration is also on my radar."

Browne asked if non-profits could apply.

"I'm not sure," Lucero said. "That's part of my learning curve. I know there are funds from different pots of money. I will ask."

Browne asked the other commissioners if they wanted to put in comments from the commission or do it individually.

Billings said he saw everyone doing it individually. "It could take us hours to get to group comments."

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said she agreed with Browne and Billings. "Maybe we could offer a broad-brush comment from the commission, such as supporting planning money. Maybe we could do a resolution."

Lucero suggested the commission submit a draft letter before the deadline of Oct. 23 and do a resolution later.

Edwards asked Administrative Assistant Kevin Hubbs to create a letter. County Manager Tim Zamora suggested including Planning and Community Development Director Priscilla Shoup in the process.

Edwards asked if an acequia could apply on its own.

"Yes," Lucero said. "Their challenge comes with the fact that they have never dealt with a state process. They may have to create in ICIP (infrastructure capital improvement plan) and provide administration to deal with any award. Yes, acequias and water associations can have ICIPs, but it's difficult to get them engaged. It's really a simple fix for them to get ICIPs, but it's too late for this year."

Edwards asked if Lucero's vision on planning funding is to set aside dollars specifically for planning.

Lucero replied: "If we have a fund, take, for example, a ditch association needs a PER (preliminary engineering report) for a cost estimate, the association can go for capital outlay or for New Mexico Unit Fund money. Even the Rural Opportunities Task Force might be an option. If we have more flexibility, we can develop estimates, so we can then go for design funding and use it as a steppingstone. Say you have the design done, then you can go to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for funding. If an association gets ready to proceed with a project and no other options are available, then they can go to the New Mexico Unit Fund."

Lucero explained that planning money generally is for only an engineering report. "Do the engineering report, then get funding for design to determine how to fix the problem. You can reach out to me at any time for more information and for updates on the process."

The next article will cover the presentation that addresses a new vision for the old Grant County Jail behind the county courthouse.