Sierra County Commissioners have blocked Spaceport tax board from exercising fiscal oversight for years

by Kathleen Sloan | February 3, 2021
11 min read
As Spaceport tax district board chair, Frances Luna (left), representing Sierra County, "crushed" for nearly two years repeated requests by board member Shannon Reynolds (right), a Doña Ana County commissioner, to convene the board. Shannon sought board reconsideration of a resolution allowing "excess" gross receipts taxes to go to Spaceport operations. Source: Facebook

Perhaps unaware her question was being broadcast to online meeting attendees, Frances Luna, just before a Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission meeting was to begin on Jan. 21, asked Travis Day, “Did you crush him?” referring to a Doña Ana County commissioner and member of the Spaceport America tax district board, which had met that morning.

Luna had represented Sierra County on the Spaceport tax district board from 2013 until Jan. 1, 2021, when she “termed out” as a Sierra County Commissioner after serving eight years. Sierra County Commission Chairperson Jim Paxon and Vice Chairperson Travis Day are the county’s current representatives on the tax district board.

Paxon, Day and Luna, who is now a Truth or Consequences city commissioner, are all members of the hospital JPC. They spoke of tax board matters prior to the JPC’s January meeting, although New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act requires governmental business be conducted in public meetings. Backroom strategizing of the kind this reporter overheard at the JPC meeting is not allowed.

“I wouldn’t say crushed,” Day responded, but admitted Doña Ana County Commissioner Shannon Reynolds had been defeated in his most recent attempt to get a discussion of tax allocations and expenditures on the tax district board agenda.

“I knew you could do it,” Luna said, giving high praise to Day. Paxon interrupted, saying, “I was there too,” in order to claim partial credit for Reynold’s drubbing.

“They did crush me in a way,” Reynolds admitted to the Sun in a later interview. 


Reynolds shared documents with the Sun showing how Sierra County commissioners, particularly Frances Luna, have blocked the Spaceport tax district board’s exercise of fiscal oversight for years. The tax district board, which is comprised of three representatives from Doña Ana County and three from Sierra County, is supposed to oversee how Spaceport America spends gross receipts tax revenue. Both counties have been collecting .25 GRT, or 1/4 cent, for every $1 spent on goods in their jurisdictions since county voters approved these taxes in 2007.

Reynolds, at the Jan. 21 tax district board meeting, said Luna, as then-chair of the tax district board, ignored his entreaties to call a meeting for a year and a half. He shared his one-sided correspondence with Luna with the Sun.

Not exercising fiscal oversight has been expensive for taxpayers in both counties. If the tax district board had refinanced the two bond debts on a timely basis in December 2019, it would have saved taxpayers going forward at least $150,000 a month or nearly $2 million—and counting. These costs were reported at the Jan. 21 meeting by Michael Zavelle, chief financial strategist with the New Mexico Finance Authority, which issued and bought the bonds, rather selling them on the open market. The interest rate on the bonds remains set at a whopping 5 percent.

Zavelle also reported that $6.4 million in “excess” GRT—that is, revenue not dedicated to paying off debt—has been given to the Spaceport since 2011.

A state Department of Finance and Administration study of Spaceport spending, which was included in the recent McHard forensic audit of the Spaceport’s management, indicates the excess GRT has been spent on salaries and operations, not capital projects. The McHard report states the New Mexico Attorney General is currently investigating the legality of these expenditures.


After it became clear Luna was not going to respond, Reynolds, an executive coach and motivational speaker who was elected to the Doña Ana County Commission in 2018, turned to Day and Paxon. He shared his correspondence with them with the Sun, which showed that the two also ignored Reynold’s requests to meet to discuss the use of excess GRT revenue.

Under Luna’s chairmanship, the tax district board last met on June 27, 2017, three and half years ago. The board’s bylaws state it must meet once a year, at minimum. During that 2017 meeting, Sierra County representatives succeeded in outmanuevering the Doña Ana County members, passing a resolution that allows Spaceport America to spend excess GRT for any “legal” purpose. The resolution made concrete what was only tacit before: the tax district board approved of spending excess GRT on operations.

Luna, Day and Paxon did not respond to the Sun’s question why they had all ignored Commissioner Reynold’s requests to schedule tax districtboard meetings.

Taking matters into his own hands, Reynolds sent a letter to the New Mexico Finance Authority in April 2020, directing them to hold excess GRT funds. He sent a copy to the Sierra County Commission, which may have helped to pave the way for Paxon’s and Day’s decision to attend tax district board meeting that Reynolds finally succeeded in having scheduled for Jan. 21, 2021.

A second motivating factor may have been the November 2020 release of the McHard forensic audit of the suspected mismanagement of the Spaceport by its recently fired director Dan Hicks. The investigation broadened as it uncovered violations of procurement code, accounting and hiring practices, among other irregularities, including the Spaceport’s use of excess GRT revenue. The McHard auditors were unable to calculate the total amount of misspent money because of time constraints and the Spaceport’s poor record keeping. The McHard report did, however, hold others beside Hicks accountable for the waste of taxpayer money, stating wrongdoings were “exacerbated” by the lack of board oversight.

Spaceport America, a publicly funded enterprise, is overseen by two boards. The Spaceport Authority Board has broader oversight duties, while the tax district board’s oversight is restricted to the GRT spending. The secretary of the New Mexico Economic Development Department, Spaceport America’s parent agency, has a standing position on the Spaceport Authority Board. Alicia Keyes, NMEDD’s current secretary, is the present board chair.

Keyes hired the McHard firm to do the forensic audit shortly after becoming chairperson. After McHard flagged GRT spending as an irregularity, Keyes asked the EDD general counsel to render an opinion. The department’s attorneys said such spending was illegal, citing state laws that limit GRT spending to Spaceport-related capital projects, while remaining silent about salaries and operations.

Well before the McHard report was issued and the tax district board passed a resolution condoning it, Doña Ana County Commissioners began trying to stop the misuse of GRT funds. In their 2007 ballot proposals to levy this tax to help build the Spaceport, both Sierra and Doña Ana Counties promised that 75 percent of the GRT would be used for construction and capital projects. The remaining 25 percent would support STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in public schools.

Reynolds provided the Sun with three Doña Ana County Commission resolutions sent to various state officials through the years that try to stop excess GRT from going to Spaceport operations. The first resolution was passed in 2015, the second in 2017 and the last in December 2020. The last resolution asks the state to reimburse the tax district board the $6.4 million in excess GRT that has been given to Spaceport America to date.

Dona Ana Commission 2020 resolution regarding expenditure of excess GRT
In December, Doña Ana County Commission passed its third resolution aimed at preventing Spaceport-dedicated gross receipts taxes not needed to pay off Spaceport construction debts from being used to support operations. Sierra County’s representatives on the Spaceport tax district board have refused for years to discuss these possibly illegal expenditures.

Day and Paxon’s scheme to “crush” Reynolds came on the heels of the McHard report, the initiation of the AG investigation and the EDD attorneys’ opinion that state law limits GRT spending to Spaceport-related capital projects.

Day and Paxon succeeded in suppressing a vote on Reynolds’ action item on the Jan. 21 agenda. Reynolds sought to repeal the resolution passed under Luna’s leadership in June 2017 that allowed excess GRT to be spent on Spaceport operations. But Day had won control of the floor at the start of the meeting, after being made chair. Doña Ana County Commissioner Diana Murillo-Trujillo did not arrive at the meeting in time to influence the choice, giving Sierra County representatives the votes needed to install Day. Truth or Consequences realtor Sidney (Sid) Bryan, appointed by the governor to the board last July, cast the tie-breaking vote.

Reynolds was again overruled when he tried to have some of the excess GRT dedicated to obtaining the services of an administrative assistant and attorney for the tax district board. Reynolds noted the previous and current use of Spaceport America staff to fulfill these functions had presented staff with a conflict of interest in maintaining records or advising the board, as revealed in the McHard report. Day countered by suggesting that nominating a secretary-treasurer from among tax district board members should resolve the record-keeping issue and that each county could use its staff attorney for legal advice. 

Under Day’s gavel, the tax district board also decided to await the Attorney General’s ruling before voting on the repeal of the resolution. In the interim, the tax district board will meet Feb. 18 to discuss items of less import, such as changes to its bylaws.  

Day, in an interview with the Sun a few days before the Jan. 21 meeting, disregarded the issue of legality and the promise made to voters who agreed to help build the Spaceport, but not to fund its operation. “It is my understanding that the [McHard] audit showed the GRT saved the Spaceport,” Day said.

This is correct. The McHard report, citing the abovementioned DFA study of GRT spending, showed the Spaceport couldn’t have made payroll or paid the light bill without the use of those funds.

Day, who was appointed to the tax district board in January 2019, said he would support the continued use of GRT for operations if the state does not allocate funds for Spaceport operations. The success of Spaceport America means economic development for the county, Day said.

Yet it is Doña Ana County taxpayers who are paying the lion’s share of Spaceport-dedicated GRT. 

According to the Spaceport Authority’s yearly audits, 75 percent of the Spaceport GRT raised in both counties in fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019 amounted to about $7 million. The total Spaceport GRT raised in Sierra County in fiscal 2015 was less than $500,000, according to an August 2017 article in New Mexico Politics. If this data (the most recent available) is still roughly accurate, Sierra County is paying only about 8 percent of the Spaceport’s bond debt and operations bills.

The Doña Ana County Commission’s 2015 resolution stated its desire to use excess GRT to build a 24-mile paved road to the Spaceport that would significantly cut travel times for workers and tourists departing for the facility from Las Cruces and other Doña Ana communities. The project was perceived in Sierra County as detrimental to the county’s ability to attract jobs and tourists, as the 35-mile northern route to the Spaceport from Truth or Consequences would no longer be the shortest or sole paved road to the facility.

Sierra County’s obstructionism forced Doña Ana County to find other revenue sources to build the southern shortcut. It also delayed construction. The Las Cruces Sun-News reported in July 2018 the road, which ultimately cost $14 million, was finally completed after a wait of 10 years.


The Spaceport America Regional Spaceport District was formed by state law 5-16-1 through 5-16-13 in 2006. It states any interested county could be a member of the tax district if its residents voted in favor of a gross receipts tax by 2008. State law 7-20E-25, “Co-regional Spaceport gross receipts tax,” specified the GRT could be enacted in 1/16 increments, up to .50 percent or half a cent for every dollar spent on goods in the county or any part of the county designated as the taxing district.

Doña Ana and Sierra Counties joined the tax district, believing if they helped to make Spaceport America a reality, it would increase revenues from tourism, sales of goods, job creation and home buys.

Both counties passed a GRT of 1/4 cent per dollar spent before the 2008 deadline. The income from the .25 GRT could be divided into two streams. State law 5-16-13 provides: “At least seventy-five percent of the municipal regional spaceport gross receipts tax or county regional spaceport gross receipts tax revenues received by each governmental unit must be used by the district for the financing, planning, designing, engineering and construction of a regional spaceport [author’s emphasis]. No more than twenty-five percent of the municipal regional spaceport gross receipts tax or county regional spaceport gross receipts tax revenues may be used by the governmental unit enacting the tax for spaceport-related projects as approved by resolution of the governmental unit.”

Bylaws adopted by the Spaceport tax district board invested fiduciary responsibilities in a six-person board, to be comprised of two Doña Ana County Commissioners, two Sierra County Commissioners and two members appointed by the governor, one representing Doña Ana County and one representing Sierra County.

Both counties have observed the 75/25 percent split, with 25 percent of the GRT revenue going to their school districts.

But the stalemate over the allocation of “excess GRT” has resulted in the tax district board’s dereliction of its duty to provide rigorous fiscal oversight of taxpayer funding of the Spaceport America.

Case in point: the board’s failure to refinance the Spaceport’s massive bond debt.

State law 15-16-5 (B) mandates that only the elected officials on the tax district board may vote on bond issues. Bonds may be issued, according to state law 5-16-7, “for the purpose of financing the planning, designing, engineering and construction of a regional spaceport or spaceport-related project.”

In 2008, the county commissioners on the tax district board voted to issue a nearly $21 million bond and then in 2009 a nearly $56 million bond. The New Mexico Finance authority bought each bond issue and charges about 5 percent interest on each.

The revenue generated by the 75 percent portion of the counties’ GRT tax pays for the debt, which amounts annually to about $5.6 million for both bonds.

The bonds are to be paid off in 2029, when a $14 million balloon payment on the larger debt also comes due.

Correction: This story has been updated to provide the correct dates and amounts of the two tax district bond issues, which were erroneously stated when originally published.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.


Sierra County Commission selects Commissioner Jim Paxon to serve on board overseeing Spaceport tax revenues
by Kathleen Sloan | January 12, 2021

The Sierra County Commission held a special meeting on Jan. 12 to select a new representative to serve on the Spaceport America Regional Spaceport District...

“Spacepork” nickname borne out in investigation into wrongdoing by former Spaceport director Dan Hicks
by Kathleen Sloan | November 24, 2020

According to a forensic audit released today, Hicks took advantage of the lack of board oversight to engage in questionable management practices ranging from excessive...

Spaceport Authority board approves $20 million in “urgently required critical infrastructure developments” despite Spaceport’s lack of a strategic business plan
by Kathleen Sloan | December 9, 2020

A recently released investigation documenting the facility's mismanagement revealed the Spaceport has no strategic plan to guide capital expenditures. This finding identified perhaps the biggest...

4 thoughts on “Sierra County Commissioners have blocked Spaceport tax board from exercising fiscal oversight for years”

  1. Thank you. This was an excellent piece and provided much important information regarding the fiscal side of Spaceport operations.

  2. Le Roy Henderson

    What is missed here in this exposé of what numerous Sierra County residents have been complaining of for several years, is the fact that the initial Act was pitched to all New Mexico counties It’s in the reports done for the legislature prior to the one listed in this article. Only three counties were even slightly interested in the proposed 1/16 cent GRT each.

    The majority said it was pie in the sky. When it came down to it, Otero County voted no, Doña Ana County barely passed it, and good old anything-to make-a-big-score Sierra County passed it overwhelmingly! To this day, no one can put a real figure on actual benefit the $pacepork has or has not made for our county. Even Doña Ana County has only been able to make a conjecture by magnifying possible benefit.

    I was in Albuquerque yesterday to purchase a new John Deere tractor and mentioned the Spaceport to the gentleman working out our deal. He had never heard of it. He had no idea that Virgin Galactic was going to send people into space. He was totally unaware of the fact that we taxpayers are deep into that money pit for over $275 million! Yup, that Spaceport is something else. Kind of like our county commissioners!

  3. This is the most comprehensive coverage of this gnarly issue to date. Thank you, very much. The 1/4-cent GRT for Spaceport with few positive results, except the small fraction which went into STEM educational programs, contrasts with Albuquerque’s 1/4 cent for open space. That GRT built a world-famous open space system with benefits still multiplying. Since T or C and Sierra County have marvelous lands still available to build such a system, but no open space element in the city’s comprehensive plan and no dedicated GRT to acquire those lands before they are lost, why not retire the Spaceport tax, or at least part of it, and do something positive and of long-lasting benefit to future generations? How about 1/8 of a cent for open space?

  4. Le Roy Henderson

    One more thing. As I recall, Luna and previous Sierra County commissioners touted the paving of that southern road. I criticized that on numerous occasions in both the Sentinel and the Herald, stating that the paving would hurt our chances for any benefit. Our County commissioners at the time, which included my old friend Walter Armijo, allocated funds for the engineering of the road. I criticized that, but Luna, who was not a county commissioner then, was busy with her “column” in the Sentinel, talking up the paving, and as I also recall, a whole lot of other local Spaceport sycophants claimed it would help visitation here.

    The paving of the road was a promise to Doña Ana way back in 2007, but the funds were never available. The later “obstruction” came from leaders in Doña Ana County not wanting to spend their money on the road and wanting the Spaceport Authority to fulfill its earlier promises. They finally convinced the legislature to fund it a year before it was done, almost three years ago.

    If there was any objection to the paving from our county, it was me and a few others in T or C, who are generally branded as ne’er-do-wells by local media and leaders. I can remember attending economic development forums, where the Spaceport Authority board chairman pitched it as a chance to get better control over the Spaceport. It was at one of those meetings where I met Commissioner Reynolds. I talked with him after I read this story, and we both agree that the “private conversation” overheard by Ms. Sloan may very well be a violation of the Open Meetings Act. We also agree that this is a very insightful article and should be shared with the taxpayers of both Sierra and Doña Ana Counties . . . and the legislature and the governor!

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