Eastern New Mexico enjoyed a prosperous 2003. Records show 280 new businesses opened in Clovis and Portales added two dozen new chamber members. All this is evidence that the region’s retail business is booming.
All signs point to more economic pleasures in 2004, with groundbreaking expected this month on a $200 million cheese processing plant, which will bring hundreds of jobs to Curry and Roosevelt counties.
However, with growth comes challenges.
We face four major challenges in 2004: funding for an essential water project, retention of Cannon Air Force Base, an antidote for rising Curry County jail costs, and staff solutions within the Clovis Police Department.
Water tops the list, of course, in our drought-stricken part of the state. Clovis received less than 13 inches of moisture in 2003, the driest year since 1980. Clearly the Ogallala Aquifer is not going to recharge itself at the rate needed to meet our growing agricultural needs. By all accounts, the region needs a supplemental water supply in the next two or three decades. Securing the funding for it has to be a top priority for 2004.
The Ute Pipeline Project, in which water will be pumped from Ute Lake near Logan, is our best hope for survival. The project will cost close to $300 million and about 80 percent of that will have to come from our federal tax dollars. Community leaders from Quay County to Portales must speak in one voice to convince Washington the pipeline will meet our needs and that we’re worth the investment. We should strive not to fight among ourselves over minute details. How the 20 percent local share is paid for by each entity will be a key focal point this election year, too.
Unity is also important in efforts to keep Cannon Air Force Base off of the Department of Defense’s closure list.
The DoD has announced plans to shut down about 100 bases by 2005. If Cannon is one of them, the direct economic loss to the region will be about $200 million per year. Ten cheese processing plants could not offset the setback.
Fortunately, Cannon promoters have been working with the Air Force for years to ensure the base is meeting military needs. We’re hopeful the military’s consolidation will provide Cannon, with its abundant blue skies and airspace and a nearby bombing range, an opportunity to grow in size and mission in the second half of this decade.
Our job as a community is to make sure the Pentagon knows we want Cannon to stay, and that we’re committed to continue providing infrastructure and other needs.
While we ultimately must rely on others for providing much of the Ute Pipeline funds and deciding on Cannon’s future, jail costs and police staffing are issues more fully within our control.
The majority of inmates at Curry County’s Adult Detention Center are drug offenders. Officials estimate we spend $40 a day to house and feed each inmate. Jail operating costs are expected to be $1 million above budget this fiscal year, jail administrator Don Burdine said Wednesday, a trend that will likely continue.
As we’ve said many times over several decades, the best solution to the drug problem is to change the drug laws. Let’s stop incarcerating people for making poor personal choices that hurt themselves. That would reduce taxpayer costs dramatically, plus it would cut down on the number of truly violent lawbreakers whose sentences are now reduced because of overcrowding from so many non-violent drug offenders.
We realize such a step is beyond comprehension for many Americans still. So, barring decriminalization of drugs, we hope 9th Judicial District Court officials will look seriously at a drug court for Curry and Roosevelt counties. A story earlier this week explained that it focuses on counseling and rehabilitation — rather than punishment — for non-violent drug offenders.
Officials running a drug court in Albuquerque say it works and could cut taxpayer costs 65 percent.
On the other side of the law, for our law enforcers, we must develop ways to attract — and retain — qualified personnel for the Clovis Police Department. Police Chief Bill Carey said Clovis has openings for seven police officers — a typical amount this past year. But qualified applicants are scarce. Pay is an issue that’s been raised, but is it the only one? A thorough review by city officials and civilians with no vested interests might be the first step in developing a plan, complete with solution steps, to address this ongoing short-handed dilemma.
Public safety is essential to Clovis’ continued economic growth.