4 Investigates: State faces pressure to start projects approved in legislature
May 09, 2019 10:22 AM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- Can too much of a good thing be a bad? That’s the question leaders in New Mexico State government are grappling with as they figure out how to execute a record number of capital outlay projects.
During the 2019 New Mexico State Legislature, lawmakers and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham agreed to fund nearly 1,600 projects around the state, totaling $993 million in state spending. The uptick in state revenue, largely produced by the increased production of gas and oil, allowed lawmakers to spend more on a variety of projects. The projects include maintenance for highways, upgrades for aging buildings, replacing aging law enforcement vehicles, and rehabilitating older schools.
At the University of New Mexico, lawmakers agreed to spend $3 million to install surveillance cameras in every campus parking lot.
“A big problem is the number of auto thefts,” said UNM Police Lt. Trace Peck. “At one point, we were the number one university for auto thefts.”
And in the Village of Tijeras, legislators and the governor agreed to replace a fire brush truck built in 1987; a truck that is living on borrowed time.
“We had one brush fire about two years ago and the truck did break down on us in the field,” said Village of Tijeras Fire Chief Juan Hernandez. “It left my crew stranded in the fire, so it's time for a new one.”
Capital outlay funding is spread out across the state in each county and municipality; tribal lands also receive project funds.
“Capital outlay is critical,” said House Appropriations Chairwoman Rep. Patty Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup.
Recently, Rep. Lundstrom and others have publicly stated there could be big problems with the state’s ability to execute all of the projects. For one, she worries the construction and contractor work force in New Mexico dissipated after nearly a decade of reduced funding for road and building projects.
“Do you think we have a smaller pool of contractors today compared to five or ten years ago?” 4 Investigator Chris Ramirez asked.
“Absolutely we do. And not only the contractors, but all the support services that go with it... whether its surveyors, engineers, people who work with environmental issues, they go where the projects are and where the money is," Rep. Lundstrom said.
Without the labor force to do the work, many of the projects may stall. Rep. Lundstrom worries about a second problem—with so many projects, state government may not have enough employees to administer the funds and manage all the projects.
“You can't just put anyone into those positions,” Rep. Lundstrom said. “You have to look for qualified state employees who can do that kind of work.”
After years of hiring freezes, state government is missing critical positions that would oversee these capital outlay projects.
For example, at the State’s General Services Department, which oversees most state agency projects, about 30 percent of project manager positions are vacant. The New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration, which is overseeing more than 450 projects statewide, has an almost 20 percent vacancy rate for project managers. And the Public Education Department has two full time employees to oversee more than 260 projects. Despite the vacancies, State Budget Director Debbie Romero isn’t worried about project completion.
“We've seen a big shift in the way State Personnel is handling personnel actions,” Romero said. “We are getting them through a lot quicker. We don't have that lag that we had before with getting positions filled. For a few years we didn't have that and so that is why we had so many vacant positions.”
Timing matters. Money that is not spent on capital outlay by the end of the 2019 budget year could mean those projects don’t get funded at all.
“We haven't done a good job in the past, but now we have a new administration, new excitement and we want to see these projects move forward,” Romero said. “Our expectation is that these projects will get done.”
Updated: May 09, 2019 10:22 AM
Created: May 08, 2019 06:51 PM
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