By David R. King
Doña Ana County Manager
Many people in Doña Ana County continue to question why there is so much litigation and animosity between Doña Ana County and the City of Sunland Park over the control of water and wastewater utilities. The reasons for the conflict are not terribly complicated.
In a nutshell, both the county and, to a far lesser extent, Sunland Park, are responsible for providing services to populations that are growing faster than their respective tax bases can support. Ironically, much of the population growth comprises children under 18, retirees, and the unskilled, non-English-speaking poor, all of whom require the most government services while contributing the least to the tax base.
The only viable option for reversing the trend in the next decade is to grow the economy faster than the population, and we believe the only place with the potential to deliver economic growth of the quality and quantity required is the Santa Teresa area of the county.
The county and the industrial development community believe that further annexation of this area by the fledgling municipality of Sunland Park would jeopardize the economic-development momentum of Santa Teresa and would make attracting future investment and provision of crucial services difficult if not impossible.
The legal issues center on which local government – Doña Ana County or the City of Sunland Park – will provide water and wastewater services to unincorporated Santa Teresa, which is all within the county and outside the Sunland Park city limits. Part of the County’s argument has to do with representation. If Sunland Park succeeds in taking over the utilities for the area, the residents will have no representation to the governing body that controls the utility and sets rates. Under county control, they will have recourse directly through the Board of County Commissioners, as do all residents of the unincorporated and incorporated areas of the County.
The county has invested millions in a water/wastewater utility in the south county for two reasons: 1) To jump start economic growth in Santa Teresa; and 2) To implement a long-term strategy for the county to link or consolidate the valley’s 80+ rural water associations.
Sunland Park’s future depends on a growing tax base within the existing city limits that will generate funds necessary to provide services. Sunland Park has already annexed the vast majority of the commercial development abutting the residential areas of Santa Teresa. This expands the city’s tax base without obligating it to provide services (police, fire, roads, etc.) to the residents who support the commercial entities that the city is taxing. The county believes this kind of selective annexation is unfair to the county residents who depend on the tax-base revenue to pay for the necessary services provided by the county.
Further, the county’s financial strength and political maturity put it in the best position to manage the growth in the Santa Teresa area and to use revenue to expand basic services for all county residents. As the county grows, facilitating the economic potential of the Santa Teresa area is the only way to accommodate the needs of the county’s residents as a whole. If this opportunity slips away from the county – or is taken away by the courts – then the needs of the entire county as they relate to better roads, enhanced public safety and the like will be irreparably harmed.
The county has offered to work with Sunland Park on numerous occasions to find ways to manage the area’s growth in ways that are beneficial to all parties, but the offers have been rebuffed for political reasons.
We believe the needs of all county residents are compromised by this standoff that is, at present, only benefiting the lawyers. The bottom line is that Sunland Park must not be allowed or encouraged to monopolize the economic growth of the south valley by the insidious practice of annexing commercial development to feed its tax base while harnessing non-city residents with utility bills from which the residents will derive no benefit and enjoy no representation.