[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a multi-part series of articles on the extended Commission combined special meeting and work session on May 10, 2022.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

One of the main purposes of the special meeting of the Grant County Commission on May 10, 2022 was to address a proclamation declaring extreme and severe drought conditions requiring bans and restrictions on the sale and use of fireworks within the unincorporated areas of Grant County.

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne said he would like specifics on what the county could and couldn’t do.

County Counsel Ben Young of Mynatt, Martinez and Springer law firm said the proclamation was written pursuant to New Mexico Fireworks Licensing and Safety Act. “Under the statute, there has to be a public hearing followed by a proclamation, with input from State Forestry, federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and the county fire management officer. The governor issued a proclamation last week and the Forest Service and BLM recommend a similar proclamation. The statute only allows certain bans on fireworks. Currently the county has an ordinance on the books to issue fire restrictions. My recommendation is to amend the ordinance to follow statute.”

Browne asked if adding the language to the ordinance would no longer require the county to have to reissue the restrictions every 30 days.

Young said: “Unfortunately no. These bans need to be re-issued every 30 days through a proclamation. My recommendation is to take out of the ordinance the fireworks language.”

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards asked if item No. 1 in the proclamation covers all aerial fireworks. No. 1 states “The sale and use of missile type rockets, helicopters, aerial spinners, stick type rockets and ground audible devices within Grant County are prohibited.”

Young said they are the types of fireworks in the statute that “we are allowed to ban.”

County Fire Management Officer Randy Villa noted: “The big public fireworks shows are not included in this ban.”

District 2 Commissioner Javier “Harvey” Salas said it also prohibits the sale of such fireworks.

Young said there are permissible fireworks that may be sold. “The sheriff has the right to enforce the use. The statute does not ban possession of such fireworks.”

During the public hearing, Candace Breen-Lee was sworn in to testify. “I’m here to express outrage. The sale and use of fireworks should be banned during such a time of drought as we are in. A lot of roads in this county are one-way in and one-way out. How do we get out if a fire occurs between us and our way out? One black cat can start a conflagration and with these winds, it will be out of hand quickly.”

Pinos Altos Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department Chief Ed Downard was sworn in. “Fireworks are a source of ignition. Any help we can get to cut down on these sources of ignition is good. A person can drop a sparkler and a fire starts. It takes one minute to call for help. It takes up to five minutes for our firefighters to get to the station and maybe 15 minutes to get to the fire. It doesn’t take long in this wind to go a mile.”

The hearing was closed with no more speakers.

Edwards said she wanted to affirm that the proclamation, as written, “is as strong as we can make it according to state law. A stricter law would have to be done at the Legislature.”

Young agreed and “we are talking at the state level on how to strengthen the law.”

Commissioners approved the proclamation, which will need to be renewed in 30 days.

With no public input, the commissioners began presentations. Maribel Armendariz, Hidalgo Medical Services Chief Support Officer, gave a Senior Center update.

“I oversee three departments at HMS,” Armendariz said. “One is Senior Services. We serve about 500 seniors in Grant and Hidalgo counties. We provide transportation, congregate and home-delivered meals. For the past two years during the pandemic, we provided grab-and-go meals. We have now opened the Silver City, Lordsburg and Santa Clara centers. We are working on Mimbres and Gila. We have had staffing shortages of about 50 percent over the past year. We want to make sure when we are open that it is a safe environment with adequate services. We are getting our marketing out and working on staffing.  Some things that we would like to do include having a band at the centers each week. We want to provide events, such as the Senior Olympics session next week. We want to get with Western New Mexico University student nurses to come out to the centers and talk to the seniors on health issues that concern them. John Prejean and I will be doing training. We started a program on compassion for seniors, especially for the low-income ones with primary needs. We collaborate with the Farmer’s Market with vouchers, and about half of those receiving the vouchers are seniors. We have a lot of different things going on. We want to positively impact seniors.”  

The new Senior Services Director John Prejean said he had been serving HMS with credentialing for the past 1½ years. “Now I am serving as the director of Senior Services. We provide 10,000 meals to seniors, but meals are only part of the much more we plan at the centers. We are excited to work with community partners to include activities for the seniors. We want to provide education and culture. We want to build a sense of community and align with our mission, vision and values of excellence. We serve 22 percent of Hidalgo County seniors and 28 percent of Grant County seniors. We encourage all our seniors to join us with other seniors for congregate meals and transportation.”

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said the presentations had touched on his concerns. The grab-and-go meals are good at the Gila and Mimbres centers, but “loneliness is what I’m hearing from seniors. Along with the meals, they want the centers open, for conversation with other seniors. I understand that you can use volunteers.”

Armendariz said there is a high likelihood that the Mimbres Center would soon be open. “We are working to get volunteers at the Gila Senior Center.”

Billings asked if it would be useful if he gave a list of willing volunteers to her. “They are professional and responsible volunteers from the local churches.”

Armendariz said she would be open to the lists.

“I will contact those who came up with the idea and get you a list,” Billings said. 

Armendariz noted that all meals for the centers in Grant County are cooked at Silver City and Santa Clara. We have a Mimbres driver who takes the meals out and delivers to about 17 people in Mimbres. We have them on home-delivery and about 10 for the grab-and-go meals. We ideally need three people to open the center, but we can work with two. We have a lot of regulations we have to follow. At Thanksgiving, we had 60 at the center in Mimbres. I agree with you that it’s not the same for the seniors with the grab-and-go meals, and I know the importance of their having a place to go to socialize.”

Salas asked if there was an income requirement, and Armendariz said: “No, there isn’t.”

“I think it needs to be publicized that the services are not related to income,” Salas said.

Edwards asked how many receive home delivery meals in Silver City.

Armendariz said: “About 8, but we have a waiting list of 35 in Silver City. It’s part budget, and we would need staff and another route.”

Edwards asked Armendariz if she was working with seniors coming out of the hospital and temporarily in need of meals.

“We are not currently doing that,” Armendariz said. “We do have a process at Bridges within HMS.”

District 1 Commission and Chair Chris Ponce noted that Senior Services is requesting a 15 percent budget increase. 

Armendariz confirmed the request. “In just a couple of years, our vendors’ invoices have gone up from about $5,000 to $10,000, so it’s double, plus our gas invoices are up about 15 percent. Several of our vendors have increased their rates 15 percent to 20 percent. We felt it was necessary to request an increase of 15 percent to keep up with increases.”

Edwards asked if anything has changed in how the senior meals are funded. “Is it still reimbursement?”

Armendariz said previously, it was based on units. “Now we are being reimbursed for expenses. We forecast for the next 12 months what our costs will be. It’s hard to forecast staff costs. That is where municipal donations come in.”

Edwards noted that the senior centers are not the only ones dealing with increases. “Are you having any conversations with the Interim Legislative Finance Committee?”

“We will go up to the state and advocate,” Armendariz said. “We don’t know what’s in the works. Other support we’ve had is through junior money, where we got $50,000.”

“I deeply appreciate what you do for seniors,” Edwards said. “I also think we need better commitment on the state and federal levels to support low-income seniors.”

Armendariz said legislative capital outlay is another funding possibility. “During the time we were closed, we did a lot of needed renovations. Now we’re looking for funding for the bathrooms. We are in the process of putting in a walking cooler in Santa Clara and purchasing new vehicles. We are thankful for those improvements.”

Edwards said she agreed on the investment in infrastructure, but “we have to address the hunger issue.”

“Absolutely that is a priority to address, especially with the waiting list,” Armendariz said.

The next presentation was the audit report from Debbie Gray of Kriegel, Gray, Shaw and Company accounting firm. 

“The auditor’s report is done in accordance with state regulations,” Gray said. “We have a separate column for the county and another column for the hospital, with total assets of $86 million.”

On the income statement for the county, she noted the county produced more revenue than it expended with $5.4 million remaining in the General Fund. The report set forth the short-term assets and liabilities, as well as the 2019 bonds. The Corre Caminos fund is separate from other funds as it is federally funded. Other funds are combined under the governmental funds.

Budgeted expenses were $18 million, but $15.9 million was expended, so $2.1 million is available.

She noted that the county also receives property taxes collected for other entities, which are listed as custodial funds. 

As Gray went through the audit, she pointed out cash flows for units and notes to financial statements, which she said stated a lot of what and why. Also in the report is supplementary information including retiree liability. 

Combining statements include what was collected and received. A schedule of federal revenues and expenditures included $9.02 million for the large construction project at the Grant County Airport.

One of the faults was due to the firm’s staffing. “We will start in June on the preliminary budget this year.”

“The county received an unmodified opinion,” Gray said. “There was no finding on the federal component. The last audit report had a finding, and you addressed the four findings from a previous year.

“We appreciate the work we do with the county,” Gray said. “Everyone is very helpful.”

Ponce said: “And we appreciate your work.”

Next on the agenda was county reports. 

Detention Center Administrator Joseph Andazola said the jail has eight new officers in training, and “we will offer another job, and we will be fully staffed. But we will continue to recruit. We have one who will retire in September, but going on early leave in June, and we have a couple who are in interview processes with other agencies. Last week we celebrated National Correctional Officers Week. We recognized our officers of the year. Cpl. Sam Garcia was recognized as Supervisor of the Year, Cody (name unintelligle) as Officer of the Year and Charlie Muñoz who has spent 15 years with Grant County and will retire in September, with early leave in June, was also recognized. We also recognized Dylan Rivera, a recent hire, for his quick work in providing medical help to a detainee. We finished the assessment of the facility and should receive the report soon. On April 30, the population was 78, with average daily population in April at 89, and today 84. We have had no Covid cases in a couple of months.”

He noted the RISE program has 27 participants, with 16 in the facility, and 11 receiving services in the community. Andazola said he had met with all the insurance companies, and they would come back into the facility. “We met Just for Health and will apply for the program. We are continuing short-term staffing and population analyses. On a proposed retrofit, the bids came in much higher than we anticipated, almost three times more, so the companies will provide estimates per item, so we can get some of them done. Our key training dates are May 24 and 25.”

Edwards asked was PSPG stands for. Andazola said it stands for Public Safety Psychology Group our of Albuquerque. “New Mexico offers a lot of training through PSPG.”

Ponce asked where the accreditation process stood. Andazola said the recommendation was for the detention center to work on a year’s worth of proof of practice and apply for accreditation at the end of 2022 or early 2023. “The assessment is tied to accreditation. And I will share the assessment report with commissioners.”

Planning and Community Development Director Priscilla Shoup announced upcoming Community Development Block Grant hearings on May 18 and 19. She noted the Bandoni Road and the Bataan Memorial Park improvements are coming up to completion. A site visit is planned from SE Group on the Outdoor Recreation Master Plan. They plan to come during the Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo, and they hope to meet in some of the other areas and municipalities in the county. 

“We hired a part-time administrator for the Health Council,” Shoup said. “Her name is Crystal Moreno Arellano. She will be in our department.”

Salas asked about current CDBG projects. Shoup said they will end in June, so “we will apply for new projects.”

Browne asked about the asbestos abatement at the old jail.

Shoup said the Environment Department had issued its recommendations and the project would likely start in the fall.

Edwards said she appreciated that the SE Group would be coming for the rodeo and would visit outlying areas.

General Service Director and Acting County Manager Randy Villa turned the report over to Jason Lockett, Facility and Grounds Maintenance Supervisor.

“We are 99 percent complete with projects in this building,” Lockett said. “We’re working on the fields at Bataan. The bleachers are on site in Cliff, and the Gila playground equipment is on site, with the concrete pour being scheduled for both. The Gila Community Center has new faucets and an outside toilet. The Fire Base at the airport is fully staffed. And we’re doing well with sales of aviation fuel.”

He read out a list of future projects. 

Salas asked if the airport was having problems getting fuel for the firefighting aircraft.

“Usually, we can get it within a couple of days,” Lockett said. “The staff here at the fire base is covering the southern part of the state.”

Billings thanked Lockett for the attention to Cliff and the Gila Community Center. “I understand the old playground equipment will be removed.”

Lockett confirmed that and said the county may sell some of the old equipment.

Villa thanked his maintenance department for getting the flooring done quickly in the administration center. “For the fuel base, we have enough fuel to meet our needs.”

Financial Officer Linda Vasquez presented the final fiscal year 2021-22 report for the county. “We are currently working on the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2023.” She noted the bids for culvert replacement and pavement at the airport had come in over budget.

Browne asked if there was any sense that “we will get more acceptable bids?”

Procurement Officer Randy Hernandez said they were looking at a redesign of the Truck Bypass culverts. “What we looked at originally had all the bells and whistles. We expect to put out for bid again in 3-4 weeks. We asked if the bells and whistles could be accessory items rather than part of the bid.”

Acting Road Department Superintendent Joe Grijalva said with the dry conditions there was no moisture to aid blading roads. “We are taking care of complaints, but in some rocky acres we have to be careful of sparks from the equipment. We are trimming trees preparing for chip sealing projects. We installed a railing at the transfer station.”

For future projects he said the department had ordered some school bus signs for Tyrone.

Edwards asked if there had been any response from CenturyLink on the problem trees on Cottage San Road. 

“They were supposed to contact me,” Grijalva said. “They didn’t, but they did trim some branches. I’ll reach out again. I’ll be persistent.”

Ponce said he had talked to people at Casa Loma. “They wanted to thank you for the work you were doing in their area.”

Salas asked if there were any plans for railing at the collection station between Hurley and Bayard.

Grijalva said he had heard no concerns. “The Solid Waste Authority said they would get back to me with any concerns.”

The final report of the work session came from IT Director Adam Baca.

“We are assisting in emergency management and working with schools,” Baca said. “We have an integrated preparedness plan we have submitted to the state and we’re working on an application for a grant. On the IT front, we intend to revamp our ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) grant. I met with Incite (a firm helping the county with grant writing) on broadband grants. I am focusing on scaling down the IT support with Spectrum.”

Browne complimented him for stretching his time for emergency management.

“I hope we can develop a better granular level plan for where we need broadband in the county,” Baca said. “I am working with Incite on a grant. There was a suggestion to work with the schools to establish collaboration.”

Browne said he hoped the districts would step up.

Salas asked about an emergency services center. “Will it be a separate center for communication with residents?”

Baca said he is working on the issue in tandem with the planning department and determining equipment needs. “We will need big screens, mobile radios, base station radios, conference phones and things along those lines what would assist.”

The next article will get into the review of the regular session and the items approved at the regular session on May 12, 2022.

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