As the town and county of Taos look forward to a new round of funding through President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, citizens hope the money can be used to help parts of the community hit the hardest by the pandemic's side effects.
Some residents and some elected officials are concerned the federal CARES money the town received in September and the Economic Development Administration (EDA) CARES grant they applied for to run water and sewer lines to the municipal airport may have overlooked the current hardships of its own citizens.
While community leaders came up with ways to help local businesses and residents with federal funds, the town of Taos focused its efforts and money to expand the municipal airport.
How COVID affected Taos: the stats
Since the pandemic began, Taos County has seen its unemployment rate double, from 5 percent to 10.1 percent - currently the fifth highest unemployment rate in the state. The disparity between incomes and housing costs has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with nonprofits and government agencies all reporting increased homelessness and housing insecurity. There has also been an increase in student homelessness, with 90 Taos students now reported homeless according to a COVID-19 humanitarian impact study by Marjorie Luckey M.D., Chyna Dixon, MSC, and Gillian Joyce MA.
The study also shows that food pantries have more than doubled their output, with 38 percent more households served since the pandemic began. Substance abuse also remains prevalent: Rio Grande Alcohol Treatment Program reported a 50 percent increase in overdose deaths since the pandemic began, and Holy Cross Medical Center saw a 50 percent increase in ER visits for mental health and substance abuse since March of 2020.
All of these hard truths leave community members and organizers wondering just how the town and county could have helped, and still can. "You cannot build a growing economy when your community is falling apart," said Luckey. "You need housing; you need people to have money to buy things. You can't have these unmet needs and have a robust economy."
How the town spent its money
In September 2020, the town and county received CARES Act money that was appropriated by the state. The town of Taos received $1,023,223, while Taos County received $525,000. The town focused its efforts primarily on buying PPE for the community and local businesses, installing new HVAC systems in Town Hall and Coronado Hall, and helping Holy Cross Medical Center with expanding their emergency wing.
"Early on, I think we as a council made the right call,really focusing what we could on securing personal protective equipment and working with the hospital to expand and convert our detox building into an overflow facility," said Town Councilman Darien Fernández of the council's CARES Act spending.
Town Councilman Pascualito Maestas also said he felt the purchasing of PPE was a good way to encourage mask wearing, and that the HVAC repairs to Town Hall and Coronado Hall were necessary. "We were thinking about the employees who still had to go to work. "That could have been a real problem if the police department had to get shut down and quarantine for two weeks," said Maestas.
Town manager Rick Bellis also mentioned the replacement of the HVAC systems was done "to meet the federally recommended standards for filtration, circulation and introduction of fresh air." He also said the town had limited options, as the cash came from the state, and local governments "competed for a small remaining portion of it based on program guidelines."
Bellis explained that given the short amount of time they had to get in all expenses (by Dec. 31, 2020) they weren't able to directly help with community assistance. "There wasn't a lot of latitude at the local level," he said. "Giving cash grants/assistance to individuals was not an option and would have been logistically impossible to design a program, screen all the applicants and get it all distributed in about the 45 days we were given by the state."
How other municipalities spent their money
Surrounding communities used the money in a variety of different ways, in many instances giving money directly to citizens. The City of Santa Fe - which received 17.5 million dollars in CARES funding from the state - spent a total of $3.5 million dollars on direct assistance, including $2 million to purchase Santa Fe Suites to house the homeless, and 1.6 million for housing, food, childcare and other COVID-related expenses.
Río Arriba County and the City of Española - which received 2.3 million collectively - used 1 million dollars in CARES Act funds to provide direct aid, $400,000 of which went to help pay Jemez Electric bills, and $37,411 went to help Kit Carson Electric Co-op members in Río Arriba County. They also helped with food distribution, and gave away 58 free wireless internet packs.
Meanwhile, Albuquerque spent 80 percent, or $120 million on preventing city employee layoffs. They also spent $3 million to help the homeless population, including putting up hand-washing stations and portable toilets. Another $2.5 million in grants went to help residents, including those who had not yet received stimulus checks, and $1 million in grants were given to nonprofit organizations.
CARES grant funding
Aside from the CARES money the town received through the state, they received the largest portion of money through a CARES funded Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant. According to the EDA website, the money is to be used for "economic development assistance programs to help communities prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus."
The Enchanted Circle COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster), which is made up of community nonprofit and business leaders, had come up with an EDA grant proposal that would have helped several budding initiatives: Taos HIVE (Hub of Internet-based Vocation and Education), a shared workspace and small business support center; HUB X, an artist coworking space; a 'Regional Food System' to help get food to those in need; and Business Support Centers, a pod learning system presented by Tracy Jaramillo to enable small pods of children to go to school safely while the parents had access to internet.
The grant proposal was submitted and a letter of support was signed by community leaders such as Lisa O'Brien with Taos Community Foundation, Luís Reyes with Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, superintendent of Taos Municipal Schools Dr. Lillian Torrez, and many more.
While the EC-COAD was working on it's grant proposal, the town of Taos was writing its own. The town's proposal, which has not been made public yet, was a request for funding to run water and sewer lines to the airport. When asked how the grant was decided on, councilman Maestas said that "the council didn't have any say in how the grant application was developed," and that he still had not seen the application.
"It would have been nice to have the discussion with the council when the application was being drafted to figure out what the council thinks is the best way to spend the money and not just the administration," he said.
Maestas said many nonprofits were upset they were not eligible to apply in the town's application process, but were eligible to apply in other town municipalities. Councilman Darien Fernández explained that "Rick [Bellis] had a lot of resistance to supporting those other organizations. I guess he felt that any competition would possibly harm the town's chances of getting the airport grant."
In the end, the EDA grant was awarded to the town. Maestas said that it was fairly unlikely that "a small town like Taos was going to get two of those grants."
The town's focus on airport expansion has citizens and some council members questioning what the town's ultimate role will be in helping communities in need. Councilman Fernández said this focus on the airport may have been at the expense of local residents and organizations.
"Expanded sewer and water out to the airport right now, this very second, to me isn't as much of a priority as getting food on someone's table," said Fernández. "I think it's our duty as councilors - and I'm probably in the minority in this - to make sure that we help out our needy residents first.
"While the majority of the council is all in on the airport, there are a couple of us who are really pushing for there to be more of a true partnership with different organizations and not just a 'my way or the highway approach'," he said.
Councilman Maestas agreed, and said he wishes more of the council would turn their attention to the people. "I wish I could encourage the town to do something, but unfortunately, the majority of the council is focused on the airport," he said. "If we're getting money from the CARES Act, it should be used to address some of the issues that have been made worse from the pandemic or just address the pandemic in a more explicit way."
Maestas said he hopes for the council to have these conversations with businesses and the public. "What would be the best thing for the town would be to participate in some of these discussions, and collaborate and be ready to fund a project, or sponsor a project, or take the lead."
Along with the EDA CARES grant awarded to the town for sewer and water expansion, the town received $1,375,000 in capital outlay funding from the state for improvements to the airport parking lot. Fernandez noted that this seemed to be the only capital outlay request from the town, and that they could have applied for funding for other projects.
"We could have applied for funding to increase our parks, we could have applied for funding to upgrade the skate park at the Youth and Family Center, we could have applied for funding to go towards better bike lanes … That money could have been requested for the estimated $80 million in infrastructure improvements that we need for our water system," said Fernández.
Community in need
Community organizers like Steve Fuhlendorf, community coordinator for Recovery Friendly Taos and EC-COAD member, say they hope to see the incoming money used to support those aspects of the community that are most fragile, and hardest hit by the pandemic fallout.
"We're just asking for a level playing field," said Fuhlendorf, who hopes to see support from the town government when it comes to opening a detox center and additional options for recovery services, "including a continuum of care, which would include detoxification services, as well as residential treatment and outpatient treatment," he said. "All of that needs to be supported with state funding, and/or federal funds."
Fuhlendorf pointed out that living in a more rural area, the support can be harder to come by, and said he felt rural areas did not get the same attention as metropolitan areas. "We are really a community and in need in a lot of areas," he said, mentioning housing, mental health and substance abuse. "[The town is] going to have to determine what their role is and what their priorities are."
Both Fuhlendorf and EC-COAD member Marjorie Luckey, M.D., said all of the issues the town was already facing have been inflamed by the pandemic. "I think many people didn't know or don't appreciate that we were in trouble before, and have no idea how severe the impacts of COVID have been on the most vulnerable people in our community," said Luckey.
"The numbers are skewed by the pandemic," added Fuhlendorf. "Since the pandemic started, we've seen the numbers double as far as people that are in crisis."
Luckey said the statistics were "terrifying" and too often, many of the problems go unseen. "If you're unaware of it, it's easy to overlook. I'm hoping that the councilors and the mayor will be compelled to respond to the need."
"These problems have been going on for years and years and years. They're just being highlighted now in a different way," said Siena Sanderson, program coordinator for Taos Behavioral Health's Nurturing Center at Enos Garcia. Sanderson said she would like to see the money used to help people who may be getting hit by eviction notices or utility disconnection. "I work with families and the impact has been pretty extreme," she said.
Sanderson said she was upset at the fact the town put so much of their effort and money into the airport. "How are those GRTs (which the town hopes to collect through annexation) going to improve the quality of life of citizens?" she asked. "There's no money to help people with rent and utilities. I haven't seen any real effort on the part of the town to really help assist people in their daily living."
Luckey echoed these concerns. "Healthy economies cannot grow without healthy communities. As more of our community falls into poverty, hunger, homelessness and addiction from the pandemic's effects, the more our short- and long-term economy will suffer, not only from the growing humanitarian crises, but also from the loss of human capital and resources. To act as if they are separate puts all of our futures at risk."
To view the full impacts of COVID on Taos County, go to issuu.com/taoscovidimpacts.