The race for a local board that has usually gone mostly unnoticed pulled in some big numbers this year, thanks to controversy over a proposed property tax increase.
The Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors had three positions on the ballot, along with a request for a 1 mill levy.
A quarter mill levy was approved by a small number of eligible voters in 2013, 284 in favor and 136 against. This year, the increase to a full mill was shot down by 4,085 voters against and 2,058 in favor.
Much of the push back was generated by one of the candidates for the Position 5 at-large seat, Gail Goodman, when she began posting information on a Valencia County Facebook crime watch page.
Goodman, who is now the supervisor-elect for the seat, questioned whether the district was using the existing levy effectively.
“I don’t think they need more money. I don’t think they are using their resources in the best way,” Goodman said.
Goodman posted budget documents from the district to the Facebook group, which she obtained by attending the board’s public meetings.
“The public has every right to know how its money is being spent,” she said. “I also think the Legislature did a very bad thing by removing the ability to have a sunset clause. I think that will harm any levy in the future.”
When the Legislature rewrote the election code two years ago, consolidating nonpartisan races onto a November ballot in odd numbered years, it also removed the sunset provision, or expiration, on soil and water district mill levies around the state.
The current quarter mill was approved with a 10 year sunset date and will expire in 2023.
“The current budget is very heavily weighted on staff,” Goodman said. “I’m not sure that’s what the public intended for the mill levy money.”
For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the district’s budget shows a projected $351,350 in revenue from the current quarter mill levy, with $83,636 coming from sources such as New Mexico Department of Agriculture grants and state capital outlay.
According to the budget documents, $316,993 is budgeted for salaries and benefits of seven district employees, five of which are full-time and two are part-time. The district’s board of supervisors is a volunteer board.
Goodman beat out challenger, Juanita Herrera, 3,017 votes to 2,190.
Abel Camarena ran unopposed for Position 1 and received 4,237 votes. He is currently the board chairman.
In light of the mill levy failure this year, Camerena said it will be up to the board whether to try for another increase in the 2121 election, when Positions 3 and 4 will be on the ballot.
“We are going to be discussing strategy to be more present, do more outreach, show what we do,” Camerena said. “There was a big turnout this year. We’ve not had that before.”
Goodman’s addition to the board could change the dynamic of the agency, Camerena said, and there is some nervousness on the part of some members.
“My suggestion to the board is to stick to how we’ve always conducted ourselves. We are very collegial,” he said. “Right now, our members are of different political persuasions; we are a diverse group.
“My intent, if I am still chair, is to welcome Gail, show her how we operate. She may not have the whole history and understand the why of what we’ve done.”
Looking to the future, Camerna said the current board has been discussing trying to have a more visible soil health initiative from the district.
“People have come and talked about the soil erosion that comes off the east side and west mesa,” he said. “We want to take a more focused approach to runoff and soil.”
Conservation education will continue to be a primary focus of the district, Camerena said, noting it has a “very aggressive education manager” in Allison Martin.
“She is connecting with all age groups all over place and that will continue to move forward,” he said.
With the quarter mill levy for revenue for the next few years, the chairman said the board will need to take a hard look at the organization’s capacity.
“The Eastern Garden project for example, when it began, we were only supposed to be the fiscal agent. The county was supposed to be the lead,” he said. “After the first grant ran out, and it took off, we ended up with a venture for those communities. So we bit the bullet and kept the contractor on.
“She became a full-time employee and taken roughly $70,000 out of the budget that was not identified as a long-term expenditure.”
The district has been pursuing a partnership with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to put a footbridge at Whitfield over the MRGCD ditch on the west side of the property to allow pedestrian access to the bosque. Additional access to the bosque is also being contemplated at the Rio Abajo Conservation Area, 200 acres south of Belen.
“The mill levy didn’t pass but we are not going to let go of these ideas,” Camerena said.
Andrew Hautzinger, the write-in candidate for Position 2, received 116 votes. He could not be reached for comment by News-Bulletin press time.
Goodman said she’s been attending district meetings for more than a decade, and the passage of the mill levy in 2013 was discouraging to her.
“The public didn’t know anything about it. Less than 500 people voted and a solid third voted no. I just didn’t think it was very democratic,” she said. “After that, as I went to meetings, to me it became more and more insular … a very narrow focus. I felt the current board … was very open handed with public money.”
Goodman said she’s been talking to community members about projects she’d like to see the district take on, which are causing a great deal of excitement.
“My ideas … have to be presented to the entire board of supervisors. They have to be collaborative. They do not depend on my vision but on how we work as a board,” she said.
Goodman said as a public organization, the district is meant to benefit the entire community and she wants to attract a broader group of people into its vision of conservation and wildlife.
“Hopefully, we will be able to collaborate and work together to build on the vision they’ve had for the last 11 years,” she said. “Hopefully, we can expand what Whitfield and the district are meant to do.”
Goodman said she would like to see the district tap into local experts, such as those at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to the south in La Joya, game and fish and audubon experts to “help structure and enhance what is already at Whitfield to make it truly draw the kind of wildlife or birds that could enhance that. I’ve never seen an animal at Whitfield and I’ve been there a lot.”
The district’s cost sharing program needs some adjusting Goodman said, by having a panel of experts evaluate applications in a blind review.
“The applicant can’t be known and they need to remove identifying information,” she said. “I think that would be a great help in broadening the procedure in awarding this money.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.