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KUNM News Update

WED: State awards $157M for child care, NM considers retirement "double dipping" for police, + more

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U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Aubrey Robinson
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New Mexico awards $157M in grants to child care providers – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico’s child care department is sending millions to child care centers in an effort to keep them in business, awarding grants to pay for everything from salaries to rent.

The state Early Childhood Education and Care Department announced Wednesday $157 million in awards to 1,004 child care providers, from large centers to those who offer child care out of their homes.

“New Mexico needs a strong and stable child care industry, not only to support the growth and development of our children but also to ensure that parents aren’t forced to drop out of the workforce because they can’t access child care,” said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Many child care centers closed during the pandemic or reduced the number of children they served due to spacing requirements. Some are still closed or have yet to return to full capacity.

Checks start going out this month and could be a lifeline for child care centers struggling with inflation, rising rents, and increasingly competitive wages in the labor market. The state will audit 10% of the grantees, chosen randomly, to ensure the grant money is spent on eligible costs.

A set of grants totaling $278,000 will allow the opening of a child care center in Grants County in southwestern New Mexico where some 35 families are on a waiting list.

“Probably 50% of them are teachers,” said Misty Pugmire, head of El Grito Inc., which is running the center for children aged 6 weeks to 3 years old. “We’ve got several parents down there that want to go to work, or can’t afford to go to work.”

She says the grant is one of 13 the organization relies on for child care centers around the county. It will pay for around a third of her labor costs for the first year it is open. Pugmire said that since the reduction in unemployment benefits, it’s been easier to find workers even without raising wages.

But some staff hired in September are still not on the job because of the slow pace of law enforcement background checks.

“There are still some of those that I have not received the checks back, because they’re backlogged,” Pugmire said.

In July, the department increased child care subsidy eligibility to about $93,000 for a family of four.

Study: Warming climate means shortages on Pecos River – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Federal water managers warned Wednesday that like other basins across the western U.S., the Pecos River Basin in New Mexico is likely to experience growing water shortages as temperatures continue to rise over the next century.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation discussed the findings of a recently completed study on the basin during a virtual briefing, saying the goal of the work was to better understand the threats to water supplies in the region due to climate change. Officials also looked at what tools could be used to stretch resources to help sustain viable agriculture over the coming century as challenges grow.

Reclamation Study Manager Dagmar Llewellyn said those challenges are significant. She described the Pecos basin as arid with a limited and highly variable water supply.

“Drought and climate change-induced aridification is ongoing already in the basin,” she said. “We’ve been seeing less snowfall in the headwaters and more winter precipitation falling as rain. We’ve also been seeing higher consumption rates within the agricultural system.”

The peak flow of snowmelt runoff into Santa Rosa Reservoir, located at the top of the system, amounted to only a trickle of about 5 cubic feet per second this year. Total volume during the runoff period was about 700 acre-feet, or 56 times less than the historical average. That meant less water for downstream users.

About 80% of the basin's water goes to agriculture.

Other concerns include having enough water in the system to support threatened species and meeting delivery obligations to users in Texas as part of a water-sharing compact and a court settlement.

Rather than worry about the uncertainty of projections about the future, the study focused on a series of storylines about how the basin might evolve. Water managers then imagined how water uses could change as a result.

“We're not really dealing with the uncertainty question or trying to find the most likely future," Llewellyn said. "We're developing these different sandboxes that we can play in to see how we might behave, how we might use water, how we might modify our infrastructure, our operations under different potential future conditions.”

A number of factors were worked into the models used for the study, from irrigation shortages and endangered species considerations to water releases for Texas.

Officials said a decrease in future supplies won't necessarily mean a cut in agricultural production. Irrigation and infrastructure improvements, the use of more greenhouses, changes in the kinds of crops that are grown and other programs like water banking could be used to offset shrinking supplies.

Some irrigation districts already have been making changes. In Fort Sumner, real-time flow measurement devices and an automatic head gate have been installed. Other agencies are working on collecting more data to help with decision-making down the line.

Officials acknowledged that population growth in Roswell, Carlsbad and other communities along the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico could impact future demands, but the study didn’t evaluate domestic wells or potential changes in those over time.

Navajo Nation: No COVID-related deaths 14th time in 20 days – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 85 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the 14th time in the past 20 days.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe’s totals to 34,999 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll remains at 1,464.

Tribal officials still are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel.

Based on cases from Oct. 1-14, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory for 31 communities due to the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus.

All Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The tribe’s reservation is the country’s largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

New Mexico considers retirement 'double dipping' for police—Associated Press

Legislators are drafting a plan to ease restrictions against retired police officers coming back to work, in an effort to add law enforcement officers across New Mexico in the midst of a labor shortage.

At legislative committee hearing Tuesday, retired police officer and state Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque outlined a proposal for changes to retirement provisions for police that would incentivize a return to work. He said officers might continue to draw pension benefits while working and contributing to the pension fund, or delay retirement benefits for a bigger payout later.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling for the deployment of 1,000 additional police officers across the state amid public frustration with crime. She says she will ask lawmakers for $100 million to underwrite the initiative.

New Mexico amended rules at the Public Employees Retirement Association in 2010 to halt so-called double-dipping in response to concerns about fairness and the long-term solvency of the public pension fund for state and local government employees.

Opponents of retired police rehiring plans say it can hurt morale by limiting career advancement opportunities for ambitious younger officers and threaten efforts to modernize law enforcement agencies. 

Albuquerque's police force is in the midst of sweeping reforms aimed at reining in police brutality with guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice and court oversight.

An actuary to the Public Employees Retirement Association said that return-to-work systems can undermine pension solvency if they provide an incentive for many or most employees to retire early and begin drawing on retirement benefits.

One compromise solution is a buffer period of six months or longer after retirement before an officer can return to the job.

In 2016, a bill to ease retirement restrictions for police won approval of the state House of Representatives. But it advanced no further.

Voting options expand in Albuquerque, Santa Fe elections—Associated Press

Nearly 13,000 absentee and early ballots have been cast in local elections that will determine the next mayors of New Mexico's largest city as well as its state capital, with two weeks remaining before Election Day.

The secretary of state's office on Tuesday released its first tally of voter participation in the consolidated Nov. 2 election for local government offices including school boards and bond initiatives that influence local tax rates. More than 25,000 absentee ballots have been requested.

Progressive Democratic Mayors Tim Keller in Albuquerque and Alan Webber in Santa Fe are running for reelection in three-way races.

In Albuquerque, Keller is vying against Democratic Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales and conservative talk radio show host Eddy Aragon. Concerns about crime and homelessness have been prominent in the contest.

In Santa Fe, Webber is seeking a second term against Democratic Santa Fe City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler and engineer Alexis Martinez Johnson, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year.

Though local elections are nonpartisan, registered Democrats are dominating early participation among voters, casting about 60% of ballots statewide, 63% in the Albuquerque area and 85% in Santa Fe County. 

State Republican Party leaders are encouraging voters to support politically conservative school board candidates and challenge the influence of teachers unions.

Statewide voter turnout in the consolidated 2019 local election was 224,000, or 18.11% of registered voters, with just one major mayoral race on the ballot in Las Cruces.

Balloting options expanded Saturday to include a variety of early voting centers that typically open near midday and accept voters into the evening, with some variation by county. 

Early in-person voting extends through Oct. 30. Election Day voting takes place Nov. 2.

Voting began on Oct. 5 at county clerks' office and with the distribution of absentee ballots that can be dropped off or sent by mail.

Same-day voter registration is available during the early voting period but not on Election Day. As of Monday, 224 people have utilized same-day voter registration.

Education funding on ballots in New Mexico cities' elections—Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report for America

Local governments across New Mexico are seeking to renew property taxes to pay for school buildings, computers and air ventilation systems even as school districts are slated to receive $900 million in federal pandemic aid.

Ventilation upgrades are on virtually all lists after state authorities mandated upgraded systems better able to pull tiny virus particles out of the air. They often require new machinery.

Due to recent changes in state law, all money raised by local school funding ballot initiatives will go to funding to local schools.

Until this year, around 75% of operational funds in mill levies were deducted from state funds, meaning only 25% of local property taxes for schools actually went directly to that district. 

The legislation benefits districts such as Santa Fe where there's a strong local tax base, as well as districts serving Gallup, in northwestern New Mexico, where federal funds offset the nontaxable federal and tribal land surrounding it.

A few school districts with both low property values and no federal land will likely lose out in the long term under the new formula. 

But the losses won't be felt any time soon because of federal pandemic relief, which allocates funding based on the number of low-income students in the district. Wagon Mound, in northeastern New Mexico, got $15,000 for each student and doesn't have a mill levy on the ballot compared to just over $100 in Los Alamos, where school funding is on the ballot. 

In most cities, the levies will renew property taxes, but not increase them. If the ballot measures are voted down, property taxes will decrease.

School districts received around $900 million in additional federal funding this year aimed at offsetting the costs of reshaping education infrastructure in response to the virus.

Some of the funds were used to replace aging air ventilation systems. Many districts offered a laptop to each student for the first time, paid bonuses to staff working amid the risk of COVID-19, as well as purchased hand sanitizer, signage and masks.

Balloting is underway at early voting centers, county clerks' offices and by absentee ballots that can be mailed or dropped off by hand. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Albuquerque is asking voters for $630 million, with classroom technology upgrades accounting for the largest proposed spending category of around $110 million. Another $15 million would pay for air ventilation improvements. That's after $30 million budgeted from federal pandemic aid, district spokeswoman Monica Armenta said.

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Cedar Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

New Mexico finishes tests of wells for Air Force chemicals—Associated Press

New Mexico environmental protection officials have wrapped up testing of nearly five dozen private wells near a U.S. Air Force base on the eastern side of the state for so-called "forever chemicals" known as PFAS, which can be toxic to humans and animals.

The state Environment Department said Monday that neither of two PFAS contaminants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established health advisories for were detected in the samples collected during the study. However, other types of PFAS compounds were found at very low levels in nine wells. 

Contamination with PFAS chemicals has been documented at and around Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis as well as at Holloman air base near Alamogordo and other locations in New Mexico. The state sued the U.S. Air Force in 2019, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities. 

Efforts are underway to determine the extent of the contamination.

State lawmakers in 2020 approved $100,000 for the well testing program in two eastern counties near the Cannon base. The state Environment Department partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey on the sampling and well owners were notified of the results.

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney said in a statement Monday that PFAS are a threat to human health and the environment and that gathering scientific evidence will be key.

"This effort equips regulators, residents and businesses with critical information about the safety of our water supply and adds to our growing body of knowledge about the presence of these harmful chemicals in eastern New Mexico," Kenney said. 

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used in nonstick frying pans, water-repellent sports gear, stain-resistant rugs and countless other consumer products. The compounds have been associated with serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight.

While legal wrangling with the Air Force continues, state officials also have pushed for federal officials to designate PFAS as hazardous substances.

On Monday, the federal government announced a plan intended to restrict PFAS from being released into the environment, accelerate cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites such as military bases and increase investments in research to learn more about where PFAS are found and how their spread can be prevented.

Amazon eyes Albuquerque airport for new cargo facility—Associated Press

Amazon is eying the airport of New Mexico's most populous city as the site for construction of a new cargo facility.

City Council members on Monday formally proposed a lease agreement for Seattle-based Amazon to build a 30,750-square-foot cargo facility at the Albuquerque International Sunport.

"This is very exciting for economic development in Albuquerque," said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller. 

Amazon spokeswoman Eileen Hards declined comment beyond a prepared statement saying that the company hasn't signed a lease for the site yet, but is "actively exploring options locally."

Existing cargo operations at the airport are at capacity, officials said.

Keller said the city is working to develop an intermodal transportation hub at the Sunport to make it a single transfer point for planes, trains, and trucks.

"We know we've got land at the Sunport, and we have high demand for cargo," Kelller said. 

Albuquerque recently secured a $6.5 million federal grant to expand the airport's cargo apron. 

Amazon already has a distribution center in Albuquerque and is currently building a sorting facility at the same location.