Commission conversation with state official gets heated

 

September 16, 2020



CLOVIS — State Human Services Secretary David Scrase spent about 30 minutes Tuesday morning with the Curry County Commission, and found himself on the wrong end of a few uncomfortable questions from commissioners.

Scrase spoke for about 15 minutes during the commission’s virtual meeting on the COVID-19 pandemic and Curry County’s progress and worked through slides that featured public dashboard information.

“A lot of people think this data is a secret,” Scrase said. “It isn’t a secret. You can go online, you can choose your county and see the same data we just put up for you.”

For a county to have nursing home visits and in-person schools, Scrase said the measure is the same — new daily cases below eight cases per 100,000 people and test positivity 5% or lower. Counties don’t have many tools to get numbers lower, Scrase said, other than mask wearing and in-person interaction limits that have been encouraged for months. Issues for Curry County aren’t entirely surprising, Scrase noted, with the element of back-and-forth travel between Texas. Scrase noted somewhere between a third and a half of COVID-positive people don’t have symptoms and, “you wear a mask to protect other people from you; you don’t wear it to protect you from other people.”


Commissioner Robert Thornton indicated the ongoing restrictions were exhausting and counterproductive.

“Our kids need to go back to school,” Thornton said. “I understand you’re trying to follow all of this, but it seems like the whole idea of what you’re trying to do is make sure no-one gets COVID-19. That’s not going to happen. We did the 14 days we were supposed to do, and now it’s six months.”

Scrase agreed it was a given some people, including teachers and kids would contract COVID-19, but it was important to set benchmarks for safety and he would add one more word to Thornton’s sentence.

“Kids need to go back to school safely,” Scrase said. “If you were reading the news the past four weeks about what happened in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Indiana you saw a lot of schools just massively reopen. Crowded hallways, nobody wearing masks. A lot of those schools immediately had to shut down the next week after major outbreaks.”

There were tense moments when it came time for questions from Commissioners Seth Martin and Chet Spear. Martin said he wouldn’t ask many questions, because he believed an unbiased answer wouldn’t be the result.

Scrase took umbrage at the remark.

“If I understand you correctly,” Scrase responded, “your opinion is that I am completely biased and it’s pointless to ask a question. I find that offensive. You don’t know me at all and maybe we should have a conversation.”

Martin said he would welcome that before allowing Scrase to continue.

“We don’t massage this data,” Scrase said. “The numbers are what they are, and I pride myself in accurately reporting them. Insult accepted and taken, but I might shoot back at you that someone who decides somebody is completely biased without ever having a conversation with them, there might be some insight you could gain.”


Spear said the one question he had was why small businesses were forced to close during the early months of the pandemic and then only allowed to reopen at 25% capacity while big-box stores were allowed to stay open throughout.

Scrase said he largely works in decisions on medical issues, but would work to get an answer for him. Spear pressed, implying it was insulting to assume businesses should be thankful the state allowed them to reopen at 25% capacity.

“That’s insane, that’s ridiculous, it’s unfair,” Spear said. “You can’t justify when you have a mom and pop store the size of a small house where they’re OCD about sanitizing and following restrictions and these big stores won’t.”

Scrase said he still didn’t have an answer, but would take it back to the administration and get some answers.

Chairman Ben McDaniel thanked Scrase for his time, and apologized that the commission can sometimes get heated.

“It’s OK,” Scrase said. “I’m used to it.”

• Tim Parker of the New Mexico Department of Transportation updated commissioners on projects throughout District Two. He noted previous projects in the Curry area included U.S. 70 work, restoration of the Prince Street Overpass and work on Mabry Drive.


Upcoming projects include a two-phase continuation of U.S. 60/84 upgrades worth $42 million to begin next year and a study on the feasibility of a four-lane road between Clovis and Fort Sumner. Commissioner Bobby Sandoval asked if a similar approach was being taken between Fort Sumner and Santa Rosa, and was told the Clovis-Fort Sumner route was a higher priority due to freight routes.

Thornton asked about a study for a stop light at Curry Road G and 60/84. Parker said the DOT is looking at it, but the intersection at N.M. 467 was a higher priority at the moment.

Thornton also asked about 60/84 improvements in Texico, and Parker said talks were needed with the Texas Department of Transportation. Parker believed an overpass was needed, but there were concerns on impacts to nearby business.

A final question from Thornton covered bridge work on N.M. 108, and was told an opening was anticipated by late September or mid-October.

Pyle said regarding any work on adding lanes between Clovis and Fort Sumner, he said local entities would provide full support.

• Rick Masters of Cannon Air Force Base updated commissioners on an upcoming Readiness Environmental Protection Integration application from Cannon Air Force Base.

The REPI program uses Conservation Fund dollars to match Department of Defense payments used as inducements to not do things such as building wind towers, drilling for oil or irrigating.

The program has been used by Cannon Air Force Base in the past to secure land around the Melrose Air Force Range, but Masters said the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority approached the base about using REPI to pursue water rights.

Martin said he didn’t see how the county could participate in the REPI process with the base when it has an ongoing legal issue with groundwater contamination. He felt participating in REPI would turn a blind eye to PFAS contamination in order to provide the base and the city of Clovis with water.

“Curry County got out of any water business when we exited the rural water authority,” Martin said, “so it makes me question if Curry County is even allowed to participate in a program like this.”

Sandoval said the move to leave the authority was short-sighted and he appreciated the REPI efforts.

“This is something we’ve been working on for years,” Thornton said, “and it will supplement the Ute project. This is something that’s going to help us as a community going forward. I think it’s important and I appreciated the work being put forward to get it to this point.”

Spear, who helped lead the charge to exit the water authority, did not agree with Martin’s reasoning.

“We are not out of the water business,” Spear said. “We are still all in finding resources and cooperating with other sources. We are involved; we will stay involved.”

Other entities are encouraged to contribute, but those dollars will not be matched and there are no guidelines on what to donate. In prior applications, such entities have provided money to fund administrative services.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to be a great amount,” Masters said, “but the more easements we can secure the more water we can take out of production.”

• Spear put forward a motion for the county extension office to be asked to conduct all 4-H and FFA events held during county fairs, including the junior livestock shows, and create an advisory board with legal status to replace the fair board.


County Attorney Steve Doerr he could find no legal entity that has filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office as a county fair board or association. Doerr said in years past, the fair board was simply given $1,500 to purchase insurance.

“We don’t really have a contract or an agreement,” Doerr said, “and I’ve been concerned with that.”

Spear said he had visited with the extension office Monday, and was told by staff they would do so as long as a written agreement would go through New Mexico State University.

McDaniel said the plan sounded good to him and would resolve some issues. Sandoval said there would be some loose ends to tie up, but believed the plan to be a good one on balance.

Thornton wasn’t sure what the issues were with the fair board, to which Spear said the fair board technically doesn’t exist and what has operated as a fair board has done so without county oversight.

Martin said the county should be thankful to the fair board, noting, “if it hadn’t been for the fair board, there would not have been a livestock show this year and our kids would have totally missed out.

“If we’d have been totally reliant on Spectra, we’d be (expletive) out of luck, honestly. This is just to clean it up and make everything legal without totally disbanding. This will put it underneath an agency we already fund; this eliminates the nonprofit status of the fair board and we cannot contribute to a nonprofit.”

Doerr said he knows individuals have helped, but “they’re not an entity” and the county needs some kind of guidance and control.

Commissioners voted 5-0 on Spear’s motion.

• The next meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Oct. 6.

Editor’s note: The News was unable to attend the virtual meeting, but reported based on a recording of the meeting posted Tuesday afternoon on the county website.

 
 

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