Truth or Consequences city staff met the minimum public-engagement requirements to assure the city’s eligibility to apply for a Community Development Block Grant, but the both the public and the city commission remained too disengaged and too ill-informed to make a strategic project choice in the competition for federal money.
Stakeholders were not even informed of the basic financial parameters. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awards block grants to states based on a population and income formula. New Mexico’s CDBG allotment is about $11 million each year.
Colonias communities—those with low- to moderate-income residents within 150 miles of the Mexico border—are apportioned 10 percent of the CDBG funding. Truth or Consequences has Colonias status, having qualified in 2013.
Nor were stakeholders apprised that project applications are graded on citizen participation, benefit to those with low and moderate incomes, planning, and feasibility and readiness. A project is deemed feasible and ready if all funding sources have been identified, costs have been certified by an engineer, and the project can be completed within two years of the award, according the HUD website.
Informing and engaging the public in the project selection process was the responsibility of Traci Alvarez, T or C grants and projects coordinator. Alvarez enlisted the aid of Tiffany Goolsby, a senior planner with the South Central Council of Government. They conducted four public meetings in December and January. City Manager Morris Madrid said no participants gave comment at the meetings. The Sun was the only attendant at the two January meetings.
Alvarez and Goolsby then reached out on various social media platforms over the last two weeks and received some response from the public.
Selection of the CDBG project was on the agenda of the city commission’s Jan. 27 meeting.
Mayor Pro Tem Amanda Forrister said she was pleased to see local high school students had offered “opinions” on what projects they would like, showing civic engagement. The city provided no project list to select from, leaving the choice wide open. She asked city staff if the students’ ideas had been considered in the staff-recommended projects soon to be put before the city commission.
City Manager Morris Madrid noted school Superintendent Dr. Channell Segura, students and other community members favored a sports and activities complex, including an indoor pool. Madrid had proposed a similar but more elaborate three-block-development project to state legislators in the city’s ask for capital outlay funding last month.
“But that [sports complex] is not an eligible project [for CDBG funding],” Madrid said. The maximum grant amount—$750,000–would not pay for the project, and no other funding had been identified.
Because a list of city projects with certified pricing, preliminary engineering plans and identified funding had not been provided to members of the public, they were in no position to propose feasible projects. Their ineligible choices were rejected out of hand by city staff.
Similarly, the city commission was forced to make a project selection based on scant information.
Not included in the meeting packet available online, but merely listed verbally by Alvarez at the meeting with no explanation, were three staff-recommended projects: drying beds for the wastewater treatment plant; water line replacement; and a new well.
The commissioners’ subsequent discussion revealed city staff had not vetted the chosen projects, and they didn’t meet grant guidelines.
Mayor Sandra Whitehead asked Alvarez to name her top project. Alvarez chose not to and deferred the question to the director of the water and wastewater department, Jesse Cole.
Cole said his top choice was a new well to be located in the northern part of town, providing the “redundancy” needed if “the southern well field failed.”
The Sun subsequently reviewed city documents dated from April 2017 through Feb. 2020, which detailed the water production and fitness of eight city wells, all located in the southern part of town near the city’s waste transfer station. Only three of the eight wells were reported to be producing.
Well 8, closest to the transfer station, has not worked since May 2017. An April 2017 examination of that well revealed “massive biofouling.” More than 600,000 gallons were pumped out of the well in April 2017 before it was shut down.
Cole said nothing about the state of the wells during the Jan. 27 meeting, but explained that a northern well was needed as another water source to “fill the Cook Street Station tank.” Cole did not explain that all city well water must be piped to Cook Street because there is only one chlorination plant. Nor did he acknowledge a water line connecting the new well to Cook Street must also be built.
Mayor Pro Tem Amanda Forrister said, “In my mind, we need to repair water lines first.”
“If there is no water to put in water lines, there is no need to replace them,” Cole responded.
City Commissioner Frances Luna acted on new information provided at the meeting by Madrid that the grant guidelines require “certified cost estimates” to qualify for the maximum $750,000 award. Probably referring to a document given to the city commission, but not to the public, Luna said, “Both of the projects [new well and waterline replacement] exceed $750,000. One is $824,000 and the other is $1.8 million. Where is the money to fund the rest and why don’t we know about it?”
“The water line replacement project we could reduce to $750,000,” Madrid said. “The other we would have to find funding for.”
“Would COG [South Central Council of Governments] help with that?” Forrister asked.
“Yes, COG is extremely helpful,” Alvarez said, adding that it’s easier to find matching grant funds if other granting agencies have partially funded the project.
The CDBG guidelines state applications are graded higher for demonstrating “leveraging,” or identifying matching grants and funding sources.
City Commissioner Randall Aragon asked whether there was a CDBG deadline and if there was enough time for the city to seek state or other funding, though he did not specify for which project.
Goolsby answered, explaining the city’s project had to be selected immediately, since it would then have to be evaluated by mid-February for its benefit to low- and moderate-income residents, using census data and individuals’ 2020 census survey information.
“We are $1 million short for the north well project,” Luna said. “Therefore, I move we reduce the water line project to $750,000.”
None of the commissioners asked about the location of the water line project or whether the required certified cost report had been done, and city staff did not offer the information.
The City Commission approved Luna’s motion unanimously.
The last CDBG award received by the city “was around 2016,” Alvarez said, responding to a question from the Sun during the Jan. 11 CDBG public meeting. The project was “manhole replacement,” she said, having no other information. CDBG applications are also graded on past project performance.
2 thoughts on “T or C’s Community Development Block Grant project selection process sloppily managed, produced slapdash choice”
There should be great concern about our water system, given that the city’s newest well, Number 8, is not producing due to contamination, most likely (in my humble opinion) due to its proximity to the Waste Transfer Station and its French drain, where contaminants from the station and leakage from the transfer trailers pours into the ground in the middle of the well field.
The city was warned by citizens that this would happen if the transfer station were built near the well field, but political pressure and cozy (and costly) deals were made with South Central Solid Waste in Las Cruces ,and the community voted against privatizing the trash business. Weep if you will over your ever-increasing trash bill, but you were warned and decided that the city knew best.
When “I told you so just doesn’t say it.”
Don’t be shocked when Wells 3, 4 and 6 fail, and water starts costing as much as it does in Riuodoso.
And the reason the EPA ordered the county landfill closed? Protect the groundwater.
Of course, nobody is responsible.
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