[Editor's Note: This is part 5 of a series of articles on the Grant County Commission work session on Aug. 8, 2023, and the regular meeting on Aug. 10, 2023. This will continue with the review of the regular meeting agenda and decisions made at the regular meeting.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
At the Grant County Commission work session on Aug. 8, 2023, County Manager Charlene Webb continued with the regular meeting agenda review. The first item of new business addressed the consideration of an ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) allocation in the amount of $1 million for broadband wireless improvements to Fierro and Pinos Altos.
District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said he would like to table the issue until the September meeting in order to address some questions.
District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne said he, too, had the same questions as Commissioner Billings.
Billings asked about the cost benefit analysis. "At first, I thought it was 67 residences, but now I learn it is 88 houses. It still seems a lot for so few, but I understand we need to spend the money before the end of the year."
Planning Director Randy Hernandez said the regulations for ARPA are not a easy read, but do allow for the expenditure.
District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said when Covid hit and the ARPA came along, he met with U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan. "I understood we were to use the money for broadband services for work purposes and for students to be able to attend class. I also understood that people from Pinos Altos had to drive to Western New Mexico University parking lots to get internet access. I don't have a problem with these expenditures."
Browne asked what would happen if they put it off until September.
Hernandez said the funding needs to be encumbered before the end of the year and the county would have to have it expensed on its books.
Browne asked how many of the people in those residences want to subscribe to receive broadband.
Hernandez said he couldn't tell him the want, but Fierro has been identified as an unserved community. "Understand that these communities are fixed-income, low-income. WNM Communications does participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which does give a discounted internet service rate, and allows them to apply for a credit for a laptop or a tablet, with as little as $20 down. It is within our authority to provide the service to Fierro and enhance the service to Pinos Altos. WNM Communications said it was exorbitantly expensive because of rock to expand fiber to Pinos Altos, but it would be possible to enhance service through wireless capabilities. Fiber to the Fierro area, enhanced by a USDA grant, stops in Hanover."
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards also noted that another thing to consider other than workforce and school is that a lot of health care goes on online with telehealth, social workers, and community health workers who would also use broadband to provide services. "I want to remind people that the day will come when we will not have cash in our pockets, when everything will be digital. People in rural areas will be left out of the economy if they don't have access to broadband."
Billings said: "I don't think one commissioner with questions should be able to delay county staff or the will of this commission. I guess one of my questions or comments is that with so few people benefitting when there are hundreds of people in the county without good internet access. I wonder how many people have the ability to get online for health care. I'm going through it now with New Mexico Heart Institute, and I'm three-quarters computer illiterate. There's a learning curve for getting telehealth online. I'm just not sure we're getting a good bang for our buck with $1 million."
Browne said he is hard put to understand 88 residences, "but on the other hand, I'm not sure that there's enough time to put it off. I think Fierro's population is declining. I know the need in Pinos Altos, but I also know that other internet service providers are serving some residences with wireless broadband. I would hope that this money could also benefit these providers."
Hernandez said WNM Communications was chosen partly because of their participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program. "It is a requirement in the ARPA guidelines that they participate in this program."
Ponce noted that WNM Communications got a USDA grant to provide internet service expanding up from Deming, and the ARPA money would expand the service. The tower would be at the PA Volunteer Fire Department main station. "As far as I know most residents there are OK with the tower, but if you're not, please send me an email. But at the end of the day, it's probably the only option we have."
Hernandez said the USDA also had requirements and WNM Communications had met them. "Because the USDA money only funded to Hanover, this was our thought process to get expanded service to Fierro."
Edwards said it was the concept of the last mile. "In my mind, it would be even more expensive in the future."
Hernandez said WNM 's fiber cable to Hanover is already being mobilized, so this is an opportunity to expand on that service. "I will say I'm in favor for getting the last mile service to underserved residents."
Billings noted on page 39 of the ARPA regulations, it says wireline connection. "Will this work if it's not wireline, but wireless?"
Hernandez said the federal government has given examples of wireless. "Since no one can get wire or fiber up to PA, the best option is wireless. Yes, wireless is acceptable."
At the regular meeting commissioners moved to table the issue until the September meeting.
The following new business item addressed additional NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service) EWP (Emergency Watershed Protection) funding for acequias in Grant County that were damaged in the August 2022 flooding.
Webb explained at the work session that the county had just learned that more EWP funding is available for the acequias. "We are already utilizing EWP funding on private ditches, but our request is to request more funding for the public acequias. The acequias must be able to provide a 25 percent match, and there is other funding available for that cost match, so we can do permanent repairs rather than just a band-aid approach. NRCS was confident that we can use state funding for the match. NRCS has engineers on site or will be on site, so we will know the actual costs. Destre Shelley has identified about $2 million in needs just on the Gila River ditches."
Webb said they must show interest and show the damage to qualify. "We know what's out there This is another opportunity to get money."
Edwards said: "This might be horrible to say, but we haven't gotten a lot of rain, so it hasn't caused more damage."
Billings thanked Webb for being on top of things and finding more funding.
Ponce asked if the county is on track with the farmers to do what is needed.
"Yes, they were all able to get water in their ditches," Webb said. "Some were quite creative for this season."
Edwards said, in addition to this type of creativity, "there's been a lot done to keep the head gates cleared. Even in the middle of the night they might have to clear debris. There's been a lot of extra work for the folks who are reliant on the water."
Ponce noted a mess of fallen trees that when the water starts flowing downstream, it might block the rivers. "I don't know if the Forest Service should take care of that, because when the flooding comes, it will cause a lot more damage. I don't know who is going to do it, but it needs to be cleaned up."
Edwards said another issue that is germane is that rules are different on the Mimbres River from the Gila River. That includes clean up not being done on the rivers.
Webb noted that approval simply gives her authority to seek the funding. "I'm with Commissioner Edwards. It's good to have rain, but not too much. I think we leave it to the residents to deal with the debris that will continue from the burn scar. I want someone to provide an educated guess on how to deal with the long-term impact."
At the regular meeting, Edward suggested the motion be contingent on the acequias being able to pay the 25 percent match in cash or in kind services and to apply for state funding for the match, too.
Commissioners approved giving authority to Webb to request the additional funding."
The next article will get into agreements.
For the previous articles in the series, please visit https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/79844-grant-county-commission-holds-work-session-080823-part-1 ; https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/79871-grant-county-commission-holds-work-session-080823-part-2 ; https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/79906-grant-county-commission-holds-work-session-080823-and-regular-meeting-081023-part-3 ; and https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/79963-photos-added-grant-county-commission-holds-work-session-080823-and-regular-meeting-081023-part-4 .