As we take the first tentative steps out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the town of Taos and Taos County deserve credit for all they've done to try to keep us safe. The town received $1,023,223 in CARES funds and the county got $525,000 to use as needed. Both received additional funds to assist local businesses. Together the town and county used much of those funds to provide for public health with expanded hospital bed space, PPE, messaging and signage, COVID testing and enforcement of public health regulations.
Those efforts, along with the tireless work by Holy Cross Hospital and our health care providers, saved many lives and helped keep Taos County's case rate per 100,000 the seventh lowest among New Mexico counties.
But other aspects of the pandemic's toll have gone unchecked; humanitarian needs were not addressed with CARES funds. Those living in poverty before COVID are now far worse off and many others are struggling to meet basic needs. Unpaid rent and utilities have mounted to the point of crisis.
A new report, "COVID-19 in Taos County: Humanitarian Impacts" reveals catastrophic impacts. The Executive Summary and Report can be found online at issuu.com/taoscovidimpacts. "Humanitarian Impacts" compiles information collected from over 35 Taos County and Northern NM agencies and state and national data before and after COVID to identify current unmet needs, knowing that more exhaustive social data collection will be delayed, if it gets done at all.
The intent was to produce a timely snapshot of humanitarian needs to inform decision-making by elected town and county leaders as we recover. The report is a powerful reminder that Taos County has long suffered from poverty, lack of affordable housing, food insecurity, homelessness and more. COVID made all of these sometimes invisible facets of our community far worse. A few examples:
• Unemployment tripled by July 2020; it remains at 10.1 percent even now--5th highest in the state.
• Pre-COVID, 15.2 percent of us experienced food insecurity; during the pandemic the two local food pantries have been serving 38 percent more households.
• Despite more than doubling available emergency shelter through up to 60 hotel vouchers/night, nonprofits continue to be unable to provide shelter for all the unhoused Taos County families and individuals; 90 Taos students are homeless.
The list goes on with increased mental health and substance abuse problems, and children and family needs. Our local governments did little to address these problems with CARES funds, unlike other New Mexico communities.
But local nonprofits and foundations have worked hard to fill the gap. Moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs have certainly helped many remain in their homes with electricity and heat. But as the end of those programs nears, there comes a debt crisis. State financial relief programs far too often fail to serve many of those in need; information about programs doesn't reach them; forms and requirements are complex--up to 80 percent of Taos County applicants have been rejected.
American Rescue Plan dollars are coming--$1.39 million to the town and $6.35 million to the county--"to respond to the public health emergency with respect to … COVID-19 or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits …"
Our elected leaders should welcome the "Humanitarian Impacts" report and use its findings to help them decide where Rescue Plan money goes. The community is fortunate to have citizen volunteers who devoted two months of their time and expertise to compile the information. County Commissioner Darlene Vigil responded to the "Humanitarian Impact" findings appropriately, "We've got to do better than this!"
Other county commissioners have reacted similarly and are using the report in their planning.
But the Taos Town administration has reacted defensively, as if attacked. Others on the [Town] Council have urged consideration of the "Humanitarian Impact" report to help direct American Rescue Plan dollars. It is notable that the county published a report on CARES expenditures; the town has not. Taos Town administration has been lacking transparency far too often of late.
Our leaders have an undeniable duty to do all they can for all who live in the town and county. Citizens should watch closely as town and county decide where to spend American Rescue Plan funds. Open debate, transparency and public participation are required in our democracy. Voters expect their elected leaders to embody those values; our votes in upcoming elections will be determined by adherence to those expectations.
Terry Surguine lives in Taos.