County Commissioners face economic challenges as two new members join the ranks
AZTEC — The three San Juan County Commissioners who officially won their seats on Nov. 3 recognize the county has some challenges ahead of it and they will have to guide it through those challenges.
Steve Lanier and Terri Fortner will be joining the commission for their first term while John Beckstead won a second term as county commissioner. All three are Republicans who were unopposed in the general election. The number of ballots cast for each candidate was not available by print deadline on Nov. 3.
Lanier will be taking Commissioner Jim Crowley’s seat after defeating the incumbent in the Republican primary election and Fortner will be taking Jack Fortner’s seat after her husband reached term limits and was not eligible to seek reelection.
Both Lanier and Fortner have been educating themselves on the issues facing the county and Fortner has been attending meetings with her husband regarding county matters.
Lanier will represent the northeast section of the county including Aztec and Cedar Hill as well as a portion of Bloomfield north of U.S. Highway 64. Fortner represents the east Farmington area along with Flora Vista and Beckstead represents west Farmington as well as a portion of Kirtland.
The three commissioners bring a diversity of experience to the governing body. Fortner is a psychiatric nurse practitioner while Beckstead is a former assistant district attorney who now works as a lawyer at Fortner Law Offices in Farmington along with Jack Fortner. Meanwhile, Lanier is a retired high school teacher and coach.
The San Juan County Commission is facing a tight budget and earlier this year it passed a gross receipts tax increase in an effort to balance next year’s budget. Beckstead was one of the four commissioners who voted in favor of the tax increase and, during that meeting, he questioned how the county could cut the estimated $4.6 million it needed to balance the budget.
But the economic forecast remains uncertain as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to limit business activity in a part of the state that was already facing challenges due to the changes in the energy industry.
Beckstead said he is grateful to have the chance to serve a second term.
"It was an eye-opening experience for the first term," he said.
The economy is one of the key issues facing the county, especially as Public Service Company of New Mexico is exiting the two coal-fired power plants. Because PNM is the majority owner of the San Juan Generating Station and Farmington was the sole owner that wanted to continue operations of the plant, this created an uncertain future for one of the economic bases in the community. The power plant could close in 2022 if efforts to keep it operating are unsuccessful.
"I see the challenges as being how are we going to put these people back to work," Beckstead said.
He said the county will continue to support Enchant Energy and the City of Farmington's efforts to keep the San Juan Generating Station open through a carbon capture retrofit.
If the tax increase is not enough to balance the budget, the County Commission will have to decide where to cut.
“If we have to do that, we’re going to have to look at everything,” Lanier said.
Meanwhile, the commissioners will continue efforts to diversify the economy such as fighting to keep the jobs at the coal mines and the power plants and working toward a railroad that would provide a way to transport goods out of San Juan County.
Beckstead also highlighted the importance of a railroad and said the memorandum of understanding the county signed with Navajo Nation was a huge step forward and the county has also received funding to further study the prospect. If a railroad could be built, the county may be able to partner with a petrochemical company to make it a reality.
Additionally, the county will continue its efforts to improve access to behavioral health services, which Beckstead said has been a priority for the commission.
"We want to continue to ensure that we're filling those gaps that we discovered," he said.
Despite the challenges facing the community, Lanier is optimistic as he prepares to take office.
"We're all going to take this head on and we're going to survive this," he said. "It's just going to take all of us."
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e