Public input sought for mill levy

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A little more than a year after getting a voter-approved quarter mill increase to property taxes, the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District is turning to the public to find out what its constituents want to see done with the money.

Late in June, the board of directors asked Cody Stropki with SWCA Environmental Consultants out of Albuquerque to facilitate a public meeting to get questions and comments that will be incorporated into a mill levy funding priority plan.

"The plan will outline what will happen with the funds. What should be the district's focus? You can't do that with just seven people in a room," Stropki said, referring to the seven-person VSWCD board of directors. "Without the public, there is no district. If the district is not going to help, it's not going to be around. It's here for you."

Board member Teresa Smith de Cherif said the board needed input from everyone in the district on future use of the estimated $300,000 the district will collect yearly from the tax.

"The greatest thing the district has been involved in was a citizen initiative in Meadow Lake to clean up the old lake, which had become a garbage dump," Smith de Cherif said. "Our district helped fund them by providing native seeds for grass. They are one of the shining stars in our community, and we want the public to identify future shining stars."

The approval of the mill levy in May 2013 marks the first time the district has ever gotten property tax funds. The last time the district asked for a mill levy was in 2002.

At that time, because of financial difficulties the county had encountered, funding for VSWCD from Valencia County was cut by $12,000. The district proposed a 10-year, half-mill levy, which would have also provided two years of funding for the local extension service, which was in danger of completely closing due to county cuts. The measure failed.

The 10-year quarter mill levy passed last year with 284 votes in favor, 136 against, and will cost property owners 25 cents for every $1,000 of taxable assessed value.

The district was organized in 1947 and covers more than 1.4 million acres. The heart of the district is Valencia County, but also takes in portions of Bernalillo, Cibola, Sandoval, Socorro and Torrance counties.

Stropki said the increased revenue to the district could let it increase its staff beyond the current two paid employees, and as a result, increase the outreach and programs to the community.

"That way there's not the constant focus of staff on how they are going to fund the next project," Stropki said. "They can reach out to parts of the community they may not have reached yet."

One idea the board members would like to implement is a cost-share program to help private landowners get rid of invasive species or do small-scale improvements. The district doesn't have a program in place currently, since it hasn't had the funds, said board member Charlie Sanchez.

"I would like to emphasize that we don't have the financial capacity to get involved with things like laser leveling or cement-lined ditches," Sanchez said. "We would leave it to agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service to do large scale projects.

"We want to focus on small landowners who might not be big enough to qualify for things like the NRCS programs. If someone comes in with Chinese elms in their fence line that they can't control, we will cost share with them. We are looking at smaller projects, but they can be very effective."

Valencia County resident Gail Goodman asked if these grants would be given to individuals.

"So I could come in and apply and you would fund it," Goodman asked. Sanchez said that was correct.

Stropki said the district shares the cost with the landowner at a ration the board would have to determine. For example the Estancia district pays 60 percent of the cost the and the owner picks up the remaining 40 percent, he said.

"The cost share is great because the landowner has to buy in," Stropki said. "It's not the district just coming in to do the work. And if the project is too big for the district, it can connect the owner with larger agencies."

Goodman asked if the district was engaging with a duplication of efforts, mirroring the services offered by the New Mexico State University extension service.

"I don't quite understand why this is going to be different than the services already available to us in a rural area," she said. "Everybody is paying the mill levy, but it is aimed at people who own a large or significant acreage; it's a very targeted type of service."

Madeline Miller, the district's administrator, said the funding of services on private land the district provides is a niche it fills.

"For instance, brush management isn't something people are throwing money at. The district brings in money for services that are not available through other agencies and get things done on the ground," Miller said.

Sanchez said the mill levy funds would be used for things like operational costs, maintenance and programs the district currently has, such as soil testing and weed control.

"This is the first time we've had a mill levy. We want your ideas and we will work hard to distribute it equitably," he said.

County resident Elizabeth Dicharry said she would like to see the funds put towards developing open space along the bosque to reduce fire risk and create wildlife corridors.

Goodman suggested that the district do more to bring education to the schools, since recent budget reductions had cut out field trips to places such as the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.

"Valencia County has a very serious problem with kids who don't have anything to do," she said. "I think we need some kind of educational out reach to reach children at risk."

Other audience members suggested the district hold more workshops on the ins and outs of conservation and living in the desert, best practices for water use and land.

Another meeting to gather input on the use of the mill levy will be held at 7 p.m., Wednesday, July 16, at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area visitors center.

Stropki said anyone who couldn't make it out to a meeting could submit written comments to him at cstropki@swca.com or call him at 254-1115. An online survey can be found at www.surveymonkey.com/s/V3DYSHZ.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.