Torrance County is moving forward on several ambitious projects. Commission chairman Ryan Schwebach said the administration is ready to take on some big tasks, and proposals include improvements to the county fairgrounds, road construction, a regional animal control facility, improved security for 911 dispatch, and construction and development of a regional water system.
Schwebach said the county’s annual budget is $13 million. Last July, the county hired Janice Barela as county manager; she hired deputy manager Philip Tenorio.
One of the most exciting projects to both Barela and Schwebach is planned improvements to the county fairgrounds. Schwebach said plans are in place, but not “set in stone.” Those plans include creation of an enclosed multifunction building that would be used not just for the county fair, but for community events year-round, Barela said.
The county would lease out the building for events like graduations and receptions, she said, but the largest improvement would be to the overall comfort level of fair attendees and animals. Torrance County envisions hosting a wide range of events at the updated fairgrounds including “rodeos, horse shows, gymkhanas, trail riding base camps, a farmers’ market, arts and crafts shows, flea markets, [and] livestock sales and exchanges,” according to its 2020 Southern Torrance County Economic Plan.
Though Barela is clear that the plans for improvements are malleable due to the uncertain nature of a show season in a pandemic, she said she’s confident that the important aspects of the proposal will go ahead as planned.
Tenorio said that the county is ready to begin improvements, and will start by updating the utilities. Further plans include incorporating New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Services offices onto the fairgrounds.
The idea behind this is that having somebody on the premises everyday would not only help with security, but also with maintenance issues that arise when a property is used infrequently, Barela said. Also, a facility with 4H and FFA contacts would be advantageous as well as fun for the children of the community, she said.
Other work includes restructuring vehicle and pedestrian circulation, making parking ADA compliant, and creating an access point along N.M. 55, as an easement was included as part of the purchasing deed for the grounds, Barela said. That would make getting on the fairgrounds much easier for trailers with animals, she said.
Grounds improvements have been a phased-in process, Barela said. Last year in Phase 1, the county was granted $125,000 by the state for improvements. This year it was awarded an additional $700,000, which puts the county in a comfortable position to continue, she said.
Due to still-increasing prices of construction materials, Barela said plans for the fairgrounds “started bigger [but are] getting smaller,” so that the most important elements can still be addressed in a timely manner.
The county fair is held in mid-August, but Barela did not have confirmed dates yet.
Senate passage of the Electric Generation Project Requirement bill last month changed the method for distributing PILT, or “payments in lieu of taxes” received by counties from land that can’t be developed. Schwebach said the county is entering negotiations for another Industrial Revenue Bond for another wind farm.
With those additional funds, Schwebach said Torrance County is ready to bring structures, policies and administration “into the 21st Century.” Torrance County continues to work on its Fire Department, as reported by The Independent in March.
Barela and Tenorio, along with Fire Chief Don Dirks, said The Independent’s headline was misleading—that the county is not moving from all-volunteer to all-paid, but instead moving to a hybrid model as reported in the story.
Tenorio restated that the goal of the hybrid model is to have a small number of full-time firefighter EMTs, with additional support from the volunteer base.
He said that, aside from Dirks, three paid EMT firefighters (one full-time, two part-time), and an executive assistant, the county’s fire department is “100% dependent on volunteers.”
Dirks added that the three paid EMT firefighters are functioning primarily in the capacity of EMTs, while volunteer firefighters are the ones responding to calls and fighting the fires.
County Commissioner LeRoy Candelaria said that the commission is looking at increasing the stipend volunteer firefighters receive for answering calls. “We don’t ever take anything for granted,” Barela said of retaining volunteers. Those interested in volunteering for the fire department can visit torrancecountynm.org.
The commission also approved creation of a public safety complex in Moriarty. The county made a proposal for a zoning change to the Moriarty city council that was recently voted down.
The complex would merge some emergency services with the sheriff’s department, but will not include the fire department, Tenorio said. Torrance County is also taking part in a vaccination initiative that includes area towns.
Barela said this cooperative vaccination distribution effort is “the second largest in the state” after Expo events in Albuquerque.
With teams of volunteers directing people where to park, where to go, and offering guidance on navigating the state’s website, those getting vaccinated at the Moriarty High School gym were moving through the lines rapidly this week.
Moriarty Mayor Ted Hart told The Independent that last week, more than 1,800 people were vaccinated at the Moriarty site. Hart said the goal is 1,000 people per vaccination event. Barela called it “an amazing collaboration.”
The state’s health department vaccine website cvvaccine.nmhealth.org reports that as of March 31, 3,338 Torrance County citizens have been vaccinated.
“We’re in a good place,” Barela said. “But we’re not an island unto ourselves.”