T or C’s Community Development Block Grant project selection process sloppily managed, produced slapdash choice

by Kathleen Sloan | January 29, 2021
6 min read
T or C's southern well field Aerial map courtesy of Google Earth with locator pins by Ron Fenn

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.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com 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.

2 thoughts on “T or C’s Community Development Block Grant project selection process sloppily managed, produced slapdash choice”

  1. 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.

  2. 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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