Counties and cities frequently have uneasy relationships. The City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County, for example, are known for a long history of bitter—and frequently asinine—rivalry and failure to cooperate.
This has improved somewhat since the creation of the Regional Planning Authority (RPA), which is a joint city/county body that considers land use issues in the five mile “extraterritorial zone” of county jurisdiction that surrounds the city’s boundary.
Notable progress has been made surrounding water issues, a shared vision of economic development and more sustainable building practices. Other notable factors in this localized frontera, including annexation and emergency services, remain perpetually contentious. The situation is improving, but mutual mistrust and political grandstanding by individual county commissioners or city councilors still has the potential to derail and set back progress at every turn.
By now, presumably, the city has realized that, state capital or no, it is stuck in the midst of the county. The county, for its part, must have grudgingly accepted the city as its chief source of income and stature. One might guess the two would work hand in hand, follow each other’s leads on important issues and develop mutually beneficial strategies.
Indeed, the city and county recently joined together in an ambitious coalition. Both left the North Central Regional Transit District (NCRTD ) to strike out on their own together.
Because it turns out that the city and county of Santa Fe are most readily compatible in disdain for their neighbors.
The Board of County Commissioners (BCC), in a divided and divisive vote on July 7, opted to leave the NCRTD, particularly provoked to do so by outgoing County Commissioner Jack Sullivan. The City of Santa Fe, in a move led by City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger, but unanimously accepted by the City Council, had voted the month before to do, well, whatever the county did.
So, if the county jumped off of a cliff…?
There are points on which it is sensible to follow the county. As the city weighs how to move forward with its proposed “service center” on Agua Fria Street near Siler Road (at almost precisely the border to the county), it would do well to examine the county’s new Public Works facility. Designed by Santa Fe architect Michael Freeman, the building is a clever and elegant assembly of elements designed for function. Form, as they say, follows, and follows well.
The county’s planned behemoth of a courthouse, unlikely to come in under its $55 million budget, might look almost tolerable, dropped like a fauxdobe monolith on the former Paramount in the center of the city, but Freeman’s $16 million Public Works complex is shaping up to be genuinely graceful in its barren and industrial site. It’s also efficient. No one is springing for overhyped LEED certification, but the buildings are smart, contemporary renditions of the area’s passive solar tradition.
From individual work space to wind power, the details are well-considered. The building’s beauty stems from a strict adherence to a utilitarian approach, which leaves much of the recent architecture completed by the city and the county feeling stylistically labored or decidedly institutional. The whole facility, something the BCC supported wholly, is a model worth following.
But, right now, the only place the city is following the county is up its own assertion that sharing transportation costs and planning with the surrounding four counties won’t be beneficial. The county-issued press release defensively lists eight bullet points to describe why it feels it must withdraw from cooperative efforts with the entire north central region of New Mexico, but it comes down to a stubborn insistence that Santa Fe will be footing $1.3 million of transportation expenses each year that will serve other counties, never mind the fact that Los Alamos County has been footing the bill all along for service from Edgewood to Santa Fe, via El Dorado.
The rest of New Mexico already views Santa Fe (city and county) as elitist and self-aggrandizing and generally inconsiderate. Now that we’re not willing to share expenses for services that will only open Santa Fe to the surrounding counties, that view can only worsen. We should be at the vanguard of broad, regional cooperation and not allow provincial bean counters to play hick power politics with serious issues. The city and county claim to have options for maintaining current standards and creating a robust future network, but the only real option, in terms of attracting significant state and federal transportation funding, is to form a small transit district between the two entities.
So: Two parties with a proven inability to get along are going to invest time, money and energy to legally form a specialized district that will then compete for funds with an existing district that already surrounds them. It will have a less effective lobby, will have incurred the wrath of our neighboring counties and the state and will take longer to attract meaningful amounts of money to expand public transportation at exactly the moment when oil prices are creating an opportunity for expansive public buy-in.
It is poor, immodest and ungrateful behavior disguised as responsibility and frugality.
But then, the two commissioners who most pushed us in this horrible direction, Sullivan and Paul Campos, are outgoing anyhow; they won’t even be around to clean up the mess.
A challenge to the city and the county: Start tracking, right now, all of the staff time and funds it takes to avoid cooperating with the whole region and build your own snooty playground instead. The tally will prove that no money is saved in the end.
But then, it was really never about money, was it?