KUNM

Bernalillo County Fights Capital Outlay Dysfunction

May 20, 2016

New Mexico’s unique way of paying for public infrastructure projects has been under fire lately. Critics say lawmakers often divert money as political pork, at the expense of statewide construction projects. 

Now some  government officials are taking steps to address the problem at the local level. 

Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson has a message for local nonprofit organizations. “It’s not that we don’t want to work with you, we do," he said. "But we want you to work with us first.”

Nongovernmental organizations are free to ask state lawmakers in Santa Fe for capital outlay funding—and it’s pretty easy for them to get it. But these groups aren’t technically allowed to accept the money. The state can only give it to a government agency, such as a city or county—but sometimes they don’t even know that they’re expected to be a partner in the deal.

Johnson says administering this funding requires additional staff time and legal work—and the county has to front the money for the project before asking the state for reimbursement.

Johnson is the sponsor of a new policy requiring local groups that want capital outlay money from the state to get approval from Bernalillo County first. The projects may be very worthy of investment, Johnson says, but sometimes the commissioners might have already committed to other things.

“There’s a very significant budget impact and what we’re saying is, if you don’t work with us, we won’t accept the money on your behalf,” Johnson says. “And that is to protect taxpayers. Sometimes they’re very good projects but don’t necessarily align with our strategic plan.”

Commissioner Johnson agrees the state needs to fix the process, but he says local governments have to be included in that. “From the overall perspective of capital outlay reform, this is kind of a small piece of it, but it’s all trying to get hold of a really raucous process at the state level.”

Here’s how it works. The legislature allocated enough for Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless to buy a new van for outreach services.

“Getting the money from the state was relatively easy,” says Executive Director Jennifer Metzler. “We got $150,000. It was our first time ever—getting the support of legislators felt really pretty easy.

But that was almost three years ago and they still haven’t gotten the van. The city of Albuquerque did agree to manage the deal, but it’s been very complicated.

Metzler says having to get prior approval from local governments could create another barrier for social service organizations who want to take advantage of state resources.

Fred Nathan’s group Think New Mexico tried to persuade state lawmakers to reform the process last session. He says it’s becoming increasingly burdensome for local governments that have to process capital outlay for nonprofits and that this move by Bernalillo County was entirely predictable.

“This is really just a Band-Aid,” Nathan says. “What’s really needed is comprehensive reform at the Legislature so that we have a statewide plan for public infrastructure spending with priorities and objective criteria, just like other states.”

Nathan says he can sympathize with local officials who find themselves at the whim of the state lawmakers who use the fund as political pork, handing out many small grants to nonprofits in their districts.

Jennifer Metzler of Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless says if more integrity is introduced to the capital outlay system at the local level, nonprofits could ultimately be better off.

“If the county can use a transparent and equitable, merit-based funding philosophy, this could be actually helpful for the community,” she says.

Bernalillo County’s new rules will be in place for next year’s 60-day legislative session.

Check out all of the content from our People, Power and Democracy project. It's a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico In DepthNew Mexico PBS and the New Mexico News Port at UNM. Funding for the project comes from the Thornburg Foundation.