County plans outside rec, eyes repair for wrecked ditches – Silvercity Day by day Press

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(Press Staff Photo by Jo Lutz)
Detention Administrator Joseph Andazola discusses officer retention strategies with the Grant County Commission.

By JO LUTZ
Daily Press Staff
The Grant County Commission was presented with a comprehensive Trails and Outdoor Recreation Plan that recommended new connections between trail systems and between agencies — a plan they are set to formally adopt in their regular meeting Thursday.
Commissioners also received reports from county departments, including a critical update on flood response that prompted them to scramble a process for the county to pay ditch associations for repairs. They also heard from an advocate about work advancing on a public health care system for New Mexico authorized by the Health Security Act.
Before diving into the outdoor recreation plan, commissioners heard from members of the public regarding the other two big-ticket items.
Rose Shoemaker of Gila said she was confused about how to seek remediation for flood damage.
“Many of us who have water rights in the Gila are concerned about the holdout for funding for repairs,” she said. “We’re grateful that you declared an emergency right away — but that was three months ago, and in another three months it will be too late. … When ranchers and farmers need water, it will be a crisis, not an emergency.”
Retired nurse and Silver City resident Gail Stamler spoke in favor of the Health Security Act.
“We keep seeing the cost of health care going up and sticking Band-Aids on it,” she said. “Since we have $800,000 to do a design process, we should be redesigning the whole thing.”
County resident Gayle Simmons also spoke in support of the Health Security Act design process from the point of view of an employer.
“Our biggest fixed cost was health insurance, which we paid for in 14 ways,” she said. “I wanted to know why insurance is so expensive and so lousy. I learned a lot over the years, and figured out we have a fragmented health care system that costs more and does not lead to better health. [It’s] poorer health at twice the price.”
Hanover resident Robert Lucero spoke of trouble with drugs, trash and livestock in his residential neighborhood.
“The smell is unbearable,” he said. “Wake up and go to bed killing flies — I can’t open windows and doors because of stink.”
A friend of his, Lisa Jimenez, then spoke on his behalf, describing events she had personally witnessed: a woman dumping what she believed to be a wheelbarrow full of meth-related equipment into a creek, a canyon full of trash, a truck stopped in an intersection with a non-responsive driver, fast vehicles and loud equipment at all hours.
Both she and Lucero mentioned that they were hopeful since the hire of a new code enforcement officer who appeared more eager to enforce than her predecessor, but felt the situation was so bad they wanted to make the county aware as well, “before a tragedy occurs,” in Jimenez’s words.
Consultants Julia Randall and Drew Pollak-Bruce of the SE Group presented the Grant County Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation and Trails Master Plan, in development since April 2021. They appeared via Zoom.
The presenters took a moment to recognize the contribution of former Planning and Community Development Director Priscilla Shoup, who passed away in late September and worked on the project for more than a year.
“We’re dedicating this plan to Priscilla,” Randall said.
“This is a plan for an integrated system of outdoor assets,” she continued. “Throughout this process we had a couple of site visits. Our emphasis was on quality of life. This plan is primarily for the Grant County community, before considerations of tourism.”
A major recommendation is a “one-stop-shop” for outdoor recreation management. The plan proposes a memorandum of understanding among a variety of agencies for the purpose — Grant County, municipalities, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and state parks — as well as a dedicated and staffed body.
According to Pollak-Bruce, such a body would not only oversee implementation of the plan, it would allow for a trail maintenance crew that could maintain trails on land owned by all the entities, which now have different volunteer certification processes.
Other recommendations are to establish critical trail connections — for instance, extending Copper Trails Greenway, a multi-use path connecting major population centers along U.S. 180. A goal is to use towns as trailheads, making trail systems accessible to residents without the need to drive to them.
The plan specifically addresses fixing a gap in the Continental Divide Trail that requires thru-hikers to walk 11 miles along roads. Pollak-Bruce also said it would be important to connect the CDT at Little Walnut all the way into town and back, “reducing on-road walking as much as possible,” and mentioning possible use of the waterworks site and partnering with the college.
Outside of these initiatives, the consultants recommend prioritizing maintenance over new trail-building.
“It’s a really incredible system,” Pollak-Bruce said. “We don’t need a lot of new trails.”
Commissioners Javier Salas and Chris Ponce expressed concern about trail accessibility for older populations, such as retirees and people in care homes.
“How did you reach out to those individuals?” asked Ponce. “They’re a very big part of our community.”
Pollak-Bruce said they did not make a specific effort to reach older demographics, but they did track their participation. He said they got substantial feedback on their survey and attendance at meetings from older folks.
Commissioner Alicia Edwards thanked the consultants for their work.
“This justifies my argument that we need to spend money and time and effort on this,” she said. “There’s an incredible amount of information — I’m a little concerned about how to get going on it. It’s a little intimidating.”
She thanked them in particular for the extra effort to reengage with the community after the pandemic, and to get feedback on motorized recreation.
Adoption of the plan is on the agenda for Thursday’s regular meeting.
The next presenter was Mary Feldblum, executive director of the Health Security for New Mexicans campaign. She explained that the New Mexico Health Security Act authorized and funded a design process to develop a public health care option for New Mexicans.
“The Health Security Act is the result of years of input from people from all around the state,” Feldblum said. “We wanted to make sure the act would allow the state of New Mexico to set up its own health care plan with access to most people, and free access to doctors.… Premiums will go into public funds, whose interest will help invest in rural infrastructure. There have been three studies done of plans like this — the most recent in 2020. All demonstrate that if we set up our own health plan, we will save hundreds of millions in the first several years.”
Salas asked a few specific questions about costs and access, to which Feldblum replied that the design process would necessarily have to address those things. At the moment, however, there is no fixed cost for anything, so it is impossible to know before beginning the process how much would be saved for a specific procedure, for instance. Feldblum reiterated that the proposal does not stipulate a specific solution, only goals, and that other states and countries accomplish this in many different ways.
She said she wanted to see a New Mexican solution that learns from other examples, but is “smothered in red and green chile.”
Ponce was concerned about a single-rate system not being attractive to providers, who are already difficult to attract to rural New Mexico. Feldblum said that many providers were in the HSA coalition, and want to see their administrative burden alleviated by a statewide billing and medical data system.
“I would love to do a survey with our providers,” Ponce said.
Edwards asked if Feldblum needed anything from the commissioners.
“The scope of work includes a task force,” Feldblum said. “You should let [the state insurance superintendent] know that you want to be involved — you want someone who you feel could represent your interests.”
After a brief recess, the County Commission heard from the county departments, beginning with disappointing news from Emergency Manager Justin Gojkovich.
Private residential applicants can still pursue redress through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he said, even though the damage survey report has been submitted for national funding. But irrigation ditches managed by ditch and acequia associations, which might have qualified for FEMA help, will need a different solution.
Gojkovich said that the 10 New Mexico counties that applied for FEMA assistance failed to meet their collective threshold, with only Grant, Sierra and Hidalgo meeting their share.
“We’re seeing the effects of other counties not fully reporting their damages,” said Gojkovich, who said he had walked down each ditch five times. “During the preliminary disaster, we had to count how many cubic yards filled up with sediment. We got lucky and didn’t run into any snakes.”
Now acequia and ditch associations will have to instead spend their own money for repairs, and then apply to be reimbursed by the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security.
“What is the conversation we’re having about spending first and getting reimbursed?” Edwards asked. “I’m not blaming anyone in the county, but it’s incredibly ridiculous.”
“In Sierra County, we had the same issues,” said County Manager Charlene Webb, recently returned from a stint as manager there. “A very vocal group of legislators pushed hard about how cumbersome and unfair the process was, and how it really fell on taxpayers. They have to spend the money first. FEMA system does not work any differently.
“I agree the system is broke,” she continued. “But there has to be some effort, starting with this body.”
A discussion ensued that essentially answered Shoemaker’s question from public comments. It was decided that Gojkovich would work with Webb to come up with a process for ditch associations to apply for financial assistance from the county to make repairs, and the county would, in turn, apply for reimbursement.
Reservations were expressed by several commissioners that the county would not be guaranteed to get its money back, particularly with the ease with which repairs might not meet standards — for instance, if it appeared they had been repaired to better than pre-flood condition. Applicants are expected to have already have “before pictures” to document what those levels are.
Gojkovich described going through mounds of photos with applicants, scouring Google Earth and throwing out unfit images. In addition, Gojkovich and Webb mentioned that the state DHS is woefully understaffed and spread thin by the response to the Calf Canyon Fire up north.
“It’s been a lot for the acequias just to try to get water back to their land,” Gojkovich said.
Commissioner Billy Billings pointed out that February is the time repairs would need to be done in time to plant.
Edwards said they needed to engage legislators.
“We need to inform the state delegation that we’re doing this,” she said. “The county wants to be able to front the money to get this work done.”
Other county departments gave more routine reports about staffing levels and progress on hiring.
Detention Administrator Joseph Andazola reported problems with officer retention not unique to Grant County. He discussed with Ponce the possibility of a hiring bonus in exchange for longer contracts.
Facilities and grounds maintenance reported completion of the playground in Gila. Some maintenance work at the airport has been pushed back until the spring, and new vehicles for fire departments and Corre Caminos are between eight weeks and 18 months from delivery.
Fort Bayard, Pinos Altos and Whiskey Creek fire departments all successfully applied for grants of their own, and a new fire station will be built in Dos Griegos that should help with response times in that area.
IT Director Adam Baca reported that the county’s server was at the end of its extended warranty next week, and asked permission to replace it with $150,000 in ARPA funds rather than extend the warranty again.
“We have an inability to grow with these systems,” Baca said. “I’m fine letting the warranty lapse if I can move forward with the implementation of a new system.”
Commissioner Harry Browne said he had thought this project was already greenlighted, and Webb noted that unspent ARPA funds were available, and that she and Baca could move forward.
Road Department Director Joe Grijalva reported delays on a Wind Canyon road project and Alabama Street tree trimming.
Before going over the agenda for Thursday’s regular meeting, both Ponce and Grijalva expressed gratitude for the overwhelming yes vote on the county’s bond issue last week.
Jo Lutz may be reached at [email protected]