Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tried to show with her proposed budget this year that water is a top priority, allocating, among other things, $128 million for water infrastructure improvements, but a top state water official said that, while the increase will certainly help, it might not be enough to meet the moment.
Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen expressed concern last week that the funding allocated to his department and the Office of the State Engineer won’t be enough to meet their staffing needs, especially as the job market continues to be highly competitive. His department is attached to, and for budgeting purposes, is a program under the OSE, but still functions as its own agency.
“Our salary ranges are not tremendously competitive with places like Los Alamos, for example, or today with different consulting firms,” he said. He added that the midpoint salary that the state uses to calculate salaries and allocate money for them is lower than the department can realistically pay to attract and keep people, meaning the department is less likely to hire new people as it tries to maintain the staff it has.
Issues that his and the state engineer’s staff will tackle in the coming years range from overseeing new water infrastructure projects to processing permit requests from cannabis farms to carrying out the obligations the state will have as a result of the Supreme Court case over Rio Grande water with Texas and Colorado.
Schmidt-Peterson said the Interstate Stream Commission and the Office of the State Engineer combined requested funds to cover 11 new staff members. The governor’s proposed budget calls for a 24% increase in the ISC budget and 12% in the OSE budget, but Schmidt-Petersen said that would cover fewer staff than requested. The Legislative Finance Committee’s budget called for four new staff members, for example.
“It’s good to get a recommendation that’s consistent for a few staff. And that certainly will help. But it will be very difficult to move money and to take on a lot of these efforts,” Schmidt-Petersen said.
The proposed budgets both call for an increase in spending on water-related projects, but Schmidt-Petersen said he was concerned that, without more staff, his department will face an uphill battle carrying them out.
He also said that, while he and his staff fully intend to follow the new mandate that state employees return to working full-time in person, he views the current system – where employees have the option to work in-office, remotely or a hybrid – as a great success.
“I’ve just been tremendously proud of these people. They’ve given time and effort because they get flexibility there,” he said. “They’re doing more for us and, as a result, I think we’ve been more efficient than when we have them in the office.”
He also said the ISC is already strapped for space for its current employees, with some doubling-up in offices meant for one person. A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office said in an email that the Office of the State Engineer reported to the State Personnel Office that it has sufficient space.