San Juan County seeking $4.1 million in capital outlay funds for three projects

Money sought for helicopter, fire vehicle and road reconstruction project

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • County Manager Mike Stark acknowledged the county's list is shorter than usual, but he said the requests carry a significant price tag.
  • State coffers are relatively full this year because of oil and gas revenue.
  • Stark said it would be a "phenomenal" year if the county gets all three capital outlay requests funded.

FARMINGTON — San Juan County's wish list for capital outlay funding from the New Mexico Legislature is a short one, but it doesn't lack big-ticket items, meaning county officials essentially chose to go for quality over quantity this year.

County officials are seeking a total of $4.1 million in funding from state lawmakers to cover the costs of three items or projects — a new helicopter for the San Juan County Sheriff's Office ($3 million), a new "initial attack" vehicle for San Juan County Fire & Rescue ($250,000) and a resurfacing project for County Road 6480 ($850,000).

County Manager Mike Stark acknowledged the county's list is shorter than usual, but he said the requests carry a significant price tag.

"It's a little smaller in the number of projects, but the size of the projects is larger than normal," he said, singling out the $3 million request for a new helicopter as an example of that. "That's a heavy lift."

Mike Stark

Stark said the county's process for compiling a list of projects it would like to have funded through the capital outlay process is a lengthy one. It began in June 2021 with a series of meetings designed to gather citizen input. Stark then met with county department heads and members of the commission to gather their input and compare it to the items on the county's infrastructure capital improvement plan, which is a list of long-term major infrastructure projects the county has identified.

More:Nez finalizes agreements for capital outlay funding for 11 projects on Navajo Nation

Stark and his staff wound up paring this year' list to only three items and presented it to the County Commission at its Nov. 9 meeting, where it was approved. The list cites the helicopter as the highest priority, with the fire vehicle second and the road project third.

An electronic document produced by the county makes the case for each of the requests, beginning with the helicopter. It states the Sheriff's Office has two military surplus Bell helicopters, but it says both are nearly 50 years old and are underpowered. They must fly with a reduced fuel load to even get off the ground, according to the county.

San Juan County officials are requesting $3 million in capital outlay funds to buy a new helicopter for the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, as both its current helicopters are approximately 50 years old.

San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari spoke about the need for a new helicopter at the Nov. 9 commission meeting, explaining that the county acquired the helicopters from the military in 2001 when they already were approximately 30 years old. Since then, he said, it has been a juggling act to keep the two aircraft flying on a shoestring budget, as they both require near-constant maintenance, including periodic engine rebuilds.

Ferrari described the helicopters as a regional asset, noting they have been put into service to assist numerous entities outside his department, including the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Southern Ute Nation, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Colorado State Police and others.

Shane Ferrari

The two helicopters have logged nearly 2,000 flights cumulatively, he said, having been used for hundreds of search-and-rescue missions, responses to violent crimes and missing person cases.

Ferrari said if the helicopters reach the point of becoming unusable, the nearest law enforcement helicopter that could respond to a San Juan County emergency is in Albuquerque, more than 100 miles away.

If the county's request for the $3 million is granted, Ferrari said he would seek permission from the federal Defense Logistics Agency — the agency that donated the aircraft to the Sheriff's Office — to cannibalize one of his department's two existing helicopters for parts to keep the other one flying. That would allow the county to continue to have a back-up helicopter in place, he said.

San Juan County officials are seeking $250,000 in capital outlay funds to buy a new "initial attack" vehicle for San Juan County Fire & Rescue.

The county is making the request for the initial attack vehicle for the fire department because it says it needs three such trucks deployed strategically throughout the county to be in a position to respond quickly to emergencies. At present, it has only two such vehicles.

The county's final request would cover the reconstruction of County Road 6480 west of Farmington, better known as the Twin Peaks Bypass. The deteriorating road runs parallel to U.S. Highway 64 and is classified by the county as a minor arterial. According to Farmington Metropolitan Planning Organization data, the road carried an average annual daily traffic count of 1,837 vehicles in 2019.

A 5.25-mile stretch of County Road 6480 west of Farmington would be rebuilt if an $850,000 request for capital outlay funding made by county officials is approved by the state Legislature.

The county document states the road was built in the 1980s, and county spokesman Devin Neeley said it hasn't been rehabilitated since 2015, when it underwent a chip seal project. Under the terms of the capital outlay proposal, the county would complete a 2-inch cold milling and asphalt overlay 5.25 miles of the roadway and shoulders, essentially rebuilding it.

Stark said that project is shovel ready and could be initiated quickly if the funding is approved. He said there typically is a four-year deadline for spending capital outlay funds for a specific project, and he is confident San Juan County would have no problem meeting that deadline for all three of its requests this year.

He said he recently had seen a report from state officials outlining the massive number of projects around the state that had been approved for capital outlay funding but were never even started, resulting in that money sitting idle for years at a time.

"That frustrates everyone, legislators and citizens," he said.

With state coffers relatively flush this year from oil and gas revenue, Stark is optimistic about the county's chances of seeing its requests approved, though he noted there are numerous other entities in San Juan County that will submit capital outlay requests of their own. It is up to the members of the county's legislative delegation to vet those requests and come up with their own list of the most worthy and urgent projects to forward to legislative leaders, he said.

"I think this will be a good year from that regard," Stark said, referring to the amount of money lawmakers will have available to allocate. " … We stand a good chance of seeing some capital outlay funded. We're not having to play defense on this."

Stark is hoping all three requests earn legislative approval, but he said he is taking a measured approach to his expectations.

"If we were to land all three of these projects, that would be a phenomenal year," he said. "If we land only one, and it's the helicopter, that would still be a phenomenal thing to walk away with."

This year's session for the New Mexico Legislature opens Jan. 18 and ends Feb. 17.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.