Dec. 3, 2016
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Steven Hsieh

Without Progress

Projects de-authorized during special session highlight hurdles for infrastructure proposals

October 26, 2016, 12:00 am

Julie Madrid, clinical and programs director for the Solace Crisis Treatment Center, gestures towards a water stain in her office’s corner ceiling tile. “I always hope that when my client comes in, they don’t see it,” she says. “I don’t want them to feel unsafe here.” A decorative butterfly, felt and wire, hangs below the brownish mark.

Over the past few years, workers have replaced tiles and patched up holes at this full-service facility for survivors of rape, domestic violence and other traumatic events, but the leaks persist. “Every time it rains, I hear drip, drip, drip,” Madrid says.

Steven Hsieh
Two years ago, Solace secured $219,000 of state funds to pay for a new roof, along with upgrades to the building’s computer network, phone lines and climate control system. That money never got released, held up by the state Department of Finance and Administration over a rule that prohibits public entities from donating money to private organizations.

Legislators last month cut the Solace renovations, along with 120 other stalled construction projects across the state, during a special session convened by Gov. Susana Martinez to address a $600 million budget deficit split between two fiscal years. The bill filled about $90 million of that hole. About $56 million worth of projects will continue, but rather than taking the money from the general fund, the proposals will be financed through a state natural resource tax fund.

Martinez on Friday signed the package, which passed comfortably through the House and Senate. Lawmakers invoked “shared sacrifice” to defend the cuts as a means to avoid spending cash the state didn’t have, which would have violated New Mexico’s constitution.

“This must be the least bad of the bad decisions we have to make,” said Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Mesilla Park) last month on the House floor, as his colleagues debated the cuts.

The move laid bare the recurring truth that a lot of capital outlay funds don’t get spent. Most of the discontinued projects, known as earmarks, had been stalled for two or three years, adding up to about $15.7 million of unspent taxpayer dollars. Of those, projects worth about $941,135 in Santa Fe County hit the cutting room floor—more than any other jurisdiction except McKinley and Bernalillo.

Many county projects, like the Solace renovations, failed to pass a new review by the Department of Finance and Administration, a state office that looks at the feasibility and legality of capital outlay proposals before funds get released.

"It’s a lesson to us on this end that these projects need to be ready to go."
              -Sen. Peter Wirth

About $150,000 allocated for improvements to El Dorado Community School stayed in state coffers because the district failed to get the paperwork processed, according to Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe), who had allocated some funds for the renovations from his discretionary share. “That one was particularly frustrating,” Wirth says. “It’s a lesson to us on this end that these projects need to be ready to go. It’s a lesson to all the groups that ask us for funding that they need to be ready to move forward once they get the money.”

Legislators also de-authorized a $100,000 proposal for an affordable housing subdivision for veterans, sponsored by a nonprofit called Heroes Housing Alliance. After determining that the funds would not be enough to build affordable housing, city officials this year refused to sign on as a fiscal agent for the project, which was earmarked in 2014. Attorneys for Santa Fe also expressed concern that the nonprofit could potentially transfer or sell off the property.

Steven Hsieh

Funds intended to improve six acequias in the county, totaling about $287,000, also never made it out of the Department of Finance. About $127,000 of that, intended for an extension of the Acequia Madre into the Agua Fría community, froze because the proposers did not submit an engineering design. Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, says that’s a common holdup for these types of projects. “It would be helpful if there was support for those acequias to make sure some of that technical support is provided before they ask for the funding,” she tells SFR.

Solace Center’s funds got tangled over the “anti-donation” clause, intended to prevent corruption and waste, which prohibits government money from going to private institutions or citizens. Solace attempted to get around this barrier by agreeing to an arrangement in which the nonprofit would hand over the property to the City of Santa Fe until Solace delivered enough services to cover its $219,000 capital outlay allocation, according to director María José Rodríguez Cádiz. But Finance Department officials would only approve an arrangement if Solace paid off the value of the property itself, more than $1 million.

That seemed unreasonable to Rodríguez Cádiz. “If I had signed that, I would have put the next executive director in quite a bind,” she says. (Solace in 2015 reported about $1.7 million in assets, according to a financial disclosure form nonprofits are required to submit every year.)

Rep. Jim Trujillo (D-Santa Fe), who sponsored the Solace project, says that money should never have been held in the first place. He argues the organization should have qualified for an exemption of the anti-donation clause that allows money to go to services “for sick and indigent” people. “They do a lot of work for the city and state, like counseling for domestic violence and rape victims, that the state would have to do if they didn’t do it,” Trujillo says.

Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan policy group, has advocated for reform to the system to override the status quo.

“If the public works projects in those bills had been better planned and vetted on the front end,” says its executive director, Fred Nathan, “the money could have been spent much more quickly and efficiently, creating thousands of jobs.”

His group proposed legislation during this year’s regular session aimed at preventing stalled infrastructure projects. The bill, which died in the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, would have created a council to help determine the feasibility and readiness of certain projects, which would be consolidated in a state plan.


 

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