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Go Back to the Basics on City Spending

Commentary:

The inability of the Las Cruces City Council to allocate federal relief funding in a way that is fair, efficient and transparent is concerning, not only for the more-than $10 million now in limbo but also for the future millions that will be coming our way as a result of federal bills for both pandemic relief and infrastructure.

Last week, the City Council put the brakes on plans to distribute $10.37 million it has received through the American Rescue Plan Act. And, as I write this, there is no agreement on how to move forward.

The disagreement concerns the process for allocating the money. City Manager Ifo Pili argues that, because these are federal funds, the city is not required to follow its procurement code. He said they used a “hybrid” version of that code.

The McHard Accounting Firm, which uncovered serious alleged violations and abuses in its probe of the city’s Visit Las Cruces operations, disagrees.

The state faced a similar situation when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham argued that she could spend federal money without going through the legislative appropriations process. Two state senators sued, and the Supreme Court sided with them, forcing the governor to turn over control of the funds.

The procurement code was created to combat favoritism and corruption in spending government money. Beyond the legal question of can we circumvent the code is the larger and more important question of should we. How is the taxpayer better served by not having those controls in place?

The city’s handling of this has left everybody frustrated. The nine projects originally selected for funding are all worthy. The mess that has ensued, resulting in their loss of funding, should in no way be seen as a reflection on them.

The problem is that other projects that were also worthy were disqualified for reasons that city staff can not clearly explain. Whatever hybrid they came up with didn’t work.

City Council members are understandably reluctant to be the ones picking winners and losers. That would be an open invitation to corruption and cronyism.

This really isn’t that difficult. Federal money is flowing to municipalities throughout the nation as a result of the pandemic relief bills, and more will be coming soon from the federal infrastructure bill. Other cities are able to allocate the funds without tying themselves in knots, and we should be able to as well.

The City Council needs to go back to the basics. Stick to the procurement code and develop a transparent scoring system that seeks to ensure the money will go to those most in need, and will have the greatest impact. And, be absolutely certain that all federal guidelines for the money are followed to the letter. Any lapses there could result in our having to pay the money back.

There will still be winners and losers. Ten million dollars is a lot of money, but not nearly enough to address all of the needs of our community. Some groups will still be left out.

But, if we have a process that is fair and transparent, we will be well served, not only as we look to spend the $10.37 million we have now, but also the additional money that is working its way through the system.

All of this is just one more example of why the city needs a strong, independent inspector general. It is a travesty that a position mandated by the “Integrity in Government” ordinance has been vacant for three years. Either fill the position or rescind the ordinance.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.