SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe County is now allowing county commissioners to direct capital outlay funding toward specific projects and priorities in their districts.
For each of the past two fiscal years, the county has set aside $1 million for commissioners, and spent $660,000 on their priorities.
According to county staff, the idea grew out of the county’s capital improvement planning and prioritization process, reviewed after voters approved three bond issues worth a cumulative $35 million in 2012.
“We recognize there are a number of relatively low-dollar but high-impact projects that are not ranking high on county-wide prioritization,” Public Works Department director Adam Leigland told the Journal in an email.
“To address this, we have built a little more discretion into the process by dedicating some funds to pluck these high-value local projects off the lower parts of the list,” he wrote.
But the practice has evoked mixed feelings from some of the elected officials it’s meant to benefit. It also echoes a now-discontinued county practice of providing commissioners with tens of thousands of dollars in discretionary funds to spend as they pleased.
“I have mixed emotions about this whole process. This is really the intention of other commissioners. This is not my idea at all,” Commissioner Kathy Holian said about the commission-directed spending.
Commissioner Miguel Chavez said the practice came as a surprise to him when he joined the County Commission earlier this year. Chavez said he considered not accepting the money and putting it back into the pot for capital improvements that county staff had already identified as priorities.
“My first response was, ‘Don’t we have a list of priorities we’re already working off of? Shouldn’t money go there first?’ I really had mixed feelings about it initially,” Chavez said. “It seemed it was really operating at a distance from what our priorities might be.”
But, he added, “I’m finding out it’s really not that far away from priorities. It just allows commissioners to supplement maybe one project that is of more interest to them.”
Commissioner Robert Anaya said he feels strongly that commissioners should have resources at their disposal to address the county’s community and capital needs.
“I don’t see it as a negative tool. I see it as a mechanism to help the county and get projects completed,” Anaya said.
How it works
Anaya acknowledged he is one of the commissioners who brought up the prioritization idea. But, he said, “we had a discussion at the county level as commissioners and it was a collective discussion. We all agreed during the budget process to do it.”
For each of the past two fiscal years, the county has set aside $1 million – roughly $200,000 per commission district – in capital outlay gross receipts tax funds for commissioners to direct towards projects in their districts.
A list provided by Leigland shows that $660,000 has been spent on 13 projects spread throughout the five commission districts, ranging from $6,000 for a traffic study on Richards Ave. to $256,000 for bike lanes on Old Santa Fe Trail.
Usually, commissioners have approached county staff with a project in mind, although in some cases staff has suggested certain projects might be a good fit with a particular commissioner’s priorities, Leigland said.
The projects must be part of the county’s capital improvement plan. But Leigland admitted that it’s not particularly difficult to get a project added to that list, which currently includes 345 projects cumulatively worth nearly $400 million.
Once a commissioner has identified a project, the county staff fleshes out a proposal and brings it to the County Commission for approval. Leigland said he can’t recall a project not being approved by the commission.
Anaya said requiring the commission’s approval means commissioners can’t act unilaterally in moving funds. “It’s the will of the entire commission,” he said.
Holian said she would have no way of judging what the true priorities in another district should be. “I only know in my own district and the reason I know what the priorities are is because I listen to staff,” she said.
Holian said that commissioners usually have a good idea about what kinds of projects their constituents are most interested in. “I suppose that’s the good side of it. That commissioner can sort of direct funding to where they’ve heard it’s most needed,” she said.
“But they are choosing these projects,” she said. “It’s good that we (the commission) know about these projects but I think it’s highly unlikely the other commissioners would vote against what a commissioner would want in his or her district.”
Chavez and Holian acknowledged the capital outlay money could be used by commissioners to curry political favor with constituents.
“There are good points and bad points. The bad points are that a commissioner could make a decision based on political decisions as opposed to what the true needs are in the district,” Holian said.
Overall, Leigland said the county has around $85 million worth of capital projects – funded by gross receipts taxes, bonds or grants – currently approved or in progress.
Up until a few years ago, Santa Fe County Commissioners were allocated $40,000-50,000 annually in “discretionary funds” that they could largely spend as they pleased.
Expenditures ranged from donations to the commissioners’ preferred charities, school groups and nonprofit organizations to purchases of baseball caps and golf towels for constituents.
Some argued that the funds were a good way to fill holes in various aid networks. But at least one commissioner said publicly that he thought some of the funds had been used inappropriately at times.
The concerns led to a review in 2006 by the state Department of Finance and Administration, headed at the time by current Santa Fe county manager Katherine Miller. Miller said then that, “for the most part” the county funds had been expended properly, and the allocations continued for a few more years.
Chavez said that, in hindsight, the money was “maybe not abused, but trivialized, used to buy things that were insignificant.”
Asked why the county doesn’t form a committee or task force to determine if some projects are worthy of being bumped up the capital outlay list, Leigland responded that commissioners are elected to represent the people of their districts and the needs of those constituents.
He also said commissioners have to keep their eye on the bigger picture and may have insight that “pure technicians like me” aren’t aware of.
“I think we’re elected as responsible members of the community. We’re elected to represent a vast area. That’s what we do,” Anaya said.
Chavez said forming a committee isn’t a bad idea but said that $200,000 doesn’t actually go very far when it comes to capital improvements.
Chavez ended up directing money toward the county’s Human Resources building, which badly needed updating.
Chavez said he already has plans about where else his discretionary money could be used, including paving Calle Nopal, a 2.5 mile patch of road near Alameda Street. He said what he’s trying to do with the funds is plug holes and work on things that have been neglected for a long time.
Holian said she relies on the county staff to tell her what they think the most important projects are.
“I wouldn’t particularly support continuing it but I’m not against it continuing if other commissioners want to continue that. I just try to do the right thing in my district,” Holian said.
Chavez said it seems to him that commissioners are being “very selective” in how they use their funds “and it’s being put to good use.”
“From what I see so far, even though I was very skeptical in the beginning because I didn’t think it was right that any one commissioner should have that discretion, I’m kind of sensing that if the commissioners are being very selective and there’s a broad public benefit, I’m OK with it,” Chavez said. “I think it can work out good.”