Public meetings scheduled to gather input on county planning initiatives

Final list will be sent to County Commission later this year

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The public meetings will be held July 14, 21 and 28.
  • County officials hope to implement the 20 items on the final list by 2026.
  • The commission also agreed to ask voters to approve an increase in the gross receipts tax.

FARMINGTON — San Juan County officials will present a series of public meetings over the remainder of July to solicit input on the county's top planning initiatives over the next five years.

Members of the County Commission on July 6 approved a preliminary list of the 20 top initiatives compiled by department heads and commissioners over the past four months.

Deputy County Manager Jim Cox said the next step in the process is to have county residents weigh in on the list. That will be accomplished through those public meetings, which will be held July 14, 21 and 28.

In his presentation to the commission, Cox described the list as a living, breathing document, one that county officials will be able to adjust as needed as time goes by.

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County Manager Mike Stark said the idea behind identifying 20 top initiatives is that the county should be able to accomplish four of those items every year, allowing it to complete the list by 2026.

Mike Stark

Cox said after county department heads and commissioners came up with a list of 115 proposed initiatives, his staff set about scoring each of those items for fit and feasibility, ranking them from first to 20th.

The list is led by the goal of providing stronger support for law enforcement. It also includes such items as increasing local farming opportunities, expanding recreational opportunities and developing a rail system between Gallup and Farmington.

Cox said during a recent meeting of county staff members, there was also a good deal of support expressed for including an initiative that focuses on cleaning up San Juan County, which long has experienced problems with roadside trash and illegal dumping. During the July 6 commission meeting, commissioners Terri Fortner and John Beckstead conveyed their support for that idea, as well.

That led to the idea of folding a cleanup initiative into one the items that already was included in the list — the creation of a San Juan County pride campaign that would encourage residents to adopt and express a more positive attitude toward the county.

The commission then unanimously approved the preliminary list. After the public meetings are held, Cox said the county staff will compile a final list and bring it to the commission for final approval.

San Juan County Commission:Theater transfer, tax hike, priorities list on commission agenda for July 6

Taxes and movies

Commissioners took action on three other significant items, as well.

They approved a measure asking county voters to approve a 1/16th of 1 percent increase in the gross receipts tax for emergency communications and emergency medical and behavioral health services. The issue will be placed on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

The proposed increase would generate an estimated $1.6 million annually, county officials have said. It would go into effect on July 1, 2022, but the county would not begin receiving revenue from the increase until September 2022.

Stark emphasized the need for the increase by explaining that the county's tax collections have declined over time, even as expenses at the San Juan County Communications Authority have remained flat over the last 10 years.

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"It's not an expense issue," he said. "It's a revenue collection problem. If the citizens want to continue to see the great service provided by both of these entities continue at the same level, the gross receipts tax has generally been seen as the most fair way to do that."

David Ripley, director of the communications authority, said if the increase is not passed by voters, the county and its municipalities will have to start contributing more money to his agency or begin reducing services.

Beckstead noted that the commission's vote on the issue was only the first step in getting the GRT increase passed.

"This isn't the big hurdle," he said. "The big hurdle is with our citizens to let them know what this means and let them decide if the tax is appropriate."

Commissioners approved the measure unanimously.

Members of the commission also addressed two agenda items related to the film industry in San Juan County.

They voted to approve the filing of a quitclaim deed for the recently renovated Totah Theater, a procedural move that will allow the property to be transferred to the City of Farmington, which will take over management of the facility. The theater is designed to serve as the headquarters for Totah Studios, a joint venture between the city and county that officials hope will lead to an increase in film and TV production work here.

Devin Neeley

County spokesman Devin Neeley, who also serves as the county's film liaison, delivered a presentation for commissioners on the other element of the Totah Studios equation — a planned, multiple-acre film backlot where producers can do exterior and interior shooting.

Neeley said the county had retained the services of Don Gray, formerly of the New Mexico State Film Office, to analyze three potential sites in the county for their suitability for such a backlot and rank them. He said the San Juan County Industrial Complex on County Road 1130 near the Colorado border came out on top, while a site just south of Jackson Lake owned by the City of Farmington was second. Lions Park in Kirtland was ranked third.

Neeley said Gray indicated the industrial complex site was ranked ahead of the other two sites because of several factors — it already has electrical power, office space and plenty of parking, and plans are being made to provide it with Internet service.

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Plans call for erecting a "primitive" village on the site that is chosen by the commission, Neeley said, one that easily could be adapted by filmmakers to portray a Mexican, Native American or Middle Eastern village. The backlot would include a handful of buildings, and Neeley previously has said designs for the village already have been completed.

The project is being paid for by capital outlay funding from the state Legislature. Stark said after the renovation of the Totah Theater, the county has approximately $250,000 left to build the backlot.

Commissioners decided to table a motion to vote on a location for the backlot, postponing that decision until their next meeting. Fortner said she had not had the opportunity to visit the three sites under consideration, and she asked for time to do that before making a decision. The commission voted unanimously to delay the vote until later this month, with Stark indicating he would arrange a tour of the three sites for commissioners.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.