County nixed for overpass special grant

By Jack King

In a process a Clovis official called “blatant favoritism,” and which may have violated its own regulations, the state Community Development Council failed to award key funding to a project to build an overpass over State Road 467 in Curry County.

The council — whose members were replaced last year by Gov. Bill Richardson — awards federal Community Development Block Grant funds to projects statewide.

Curry County Grant Facilitator Twila Rutter-Wooley said the county applied for $500,000 in CDBG funds this year to help start the overpass project and planned to apply for another $500,000 next year to fund further work on the project.
Failing to get the money leaves the project about $1.3 million short of the necessary funding, said Chase Gentry, executive director of the Clovis Industrial Development Committee.

Rutter-Wooley said the manner in which the council carried out its deliberations this year seemed more arbitrary than in past years.

Clovis Grant Coordinator Sandy Chancey — who also failed to secure a $500,000 CDBG grant to help remodel Play Inc. facilities in the city — said she agreed with Rutter-Wooley’s assessment.

“It was blatant favoritism. There was no regard given the purpose of the program or program regulations whatsoever,” Chancey said.

David Hanna, deputy director of the state Department of Finance and Administration’s local government division, which oversees the community development bureau, said his division has received a number of calls following the March 17 allocation meeting. However, the division does not feel there was a problem with the council’s decision-making process or voting, or with the projects funded, he said.

“We’ve had comments from communities who were funded in the past, but were not funded this year, and from others, who have not been funded in the past, but were funded this year. It cuts both ways when you have more projects than money to fund them,” he said.

Getting an overpass on State Road 467 was part of an agreement the city and the county made with Burlington Northern Santa Fe when the railroad crossing at Wheaton Street was closed. An overpass will help assure access to Clovis services for residents living south of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line, they said.
During a swing through the Curry County in May 2003, Richardson told residents, “We want to get behind an overpass.”

The project already had secured $1 million from the state Department of Highway and Transportation, $300,000 from BNSF, $300,000 in state economic development tax incentives and $70,000 in rural job tax credits. The money served as financial leverage that should have helped raise its ranking in the CDBG process, Rutter-Wooley said.

Under the process, CDBG applications are ranking “high,” “medium” and “low.” Curry County’s project had a “medium” ranking. In the past, “high” ranking projects received full funding and “medium” ranking projects received partial funding, while “low” ranking projects were not funded, she said.

According to a subsection of the state’s Small Cities Community Development Block Grant application regulations, “The Council may not consider funding projects ranked in the bottom thirty-five (35) percent of non-setaside applications received each year.”

But, the council awarded funds to six projects ranked “low” this year, Rutter-Wooley said.

She said at the allocation hearing in Albuquerque, Sam Ojinaga, a staff member of the Community Development Bureau, made a presentation on CDBG application and ranking guidelines. But, Marty Cope of Hobbs, the council’s new chairwoman, then announced the council would award funding to communities as they saw fit, she said.

“This year the council chose not to fund projects exactly following staff recommendations,” Hanna said. “All the projects on the list were recommended for funding by staff. The committee just did not choose to fund them in the order the staff recommended,” he added.

Hanna said that, while one subsection of the application regulations forbids funding low ranking projects, another subsection states the council may waive state-imposed rules so long as the waiver doesn’t violate state or federal statutes or penalize other applicants. Still another states the council may deviate from staff rankings if the council by a majority vote determines it is proper to do so, as outlined in other parts of the rules.

“David (Ruiz, director of the local government division) told me the process complied with our regulations,” he said.
Chancey said Clovis will at least be able to compensate for not getting the Play Inc. grant.

“We got $375,000 from the Legislature. We can do a portion of the overall project with that, then we’ll look for other sources of funding. But other communities, that don’t have access to other funding sources, are not so fortunate,” she said.