Were New Mexico Border Counties Short-changed?

Editor’s note:

Nearing the end of our series on the New Mexico Centennial of Statehood,  Frontera NorteSur takes a look today at federal stimulus spending in the southern New Mexico border region following  the economic crisis of 2008.  Our special coverage of the southern New Mexico borderland is made possible in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

FNS Special Feature

Historically, New Mexico’s three counties sharing a border with Mexico have shown higher-than-normal rates of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. In the late 20th century, an absence of affordable housing for low-income workers coupled with rising real estate prices pushed the growth of colonias, the rural and peri-urban settlements lacking in paved roads, utility services, adequate storm water drainage and wastewater treatment.

As jobs became scarce and state funding grew austere after the Great Recession hit in 2008,  historic problems of employment and access to services deepened for many people in New Mexico’s border region. Arguably, the economic whammy would have been much worse  without the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the so-called Obama stimulus program.

However, a preliminary review of information collected by an investigative journalists’ group suggests New Mexico’s three border counties were short-changed in stimulus funding, which for the state’s border residents fell far below the averages of either New Mexico as a whole or the United States.

According to a national data base of county-specific stimulus expenditures set up by ProPublica, a non-profit journalistic organization based in New York, Dona Ana County-the biggest of New Mexico’s three border counties- received $1,264 per capita in stimulus funds from 2009 to the second quarter of 2012. Dona Ana’s share compares with the U.S. per capita of $1,691 and the New Mexico per capita of $2,336 during the same time period.

Viewed from a  population angle, Dona Ana County also seemed to have been on the short end of the stick. While Dona Ana’s 2010 population of 210,538 people constituted slightly less than ten percent New Mexico’s total population of 2,059,179, the southern border county received just $266,168, 573 of $4,811,079, 772 in stimulus funds captured by the Land of Enchantment-a little less than six percent of statewide funding.

ProPublicas’s numbers generally exclude stimulus funding that went to Medicaid, unemployment benefits and food stamps, but detail spending done through at least 13 federal agencies including the Department of Education, Department of State, Department of Army, Department of Transportation, Small Business Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Social Security Administration, National Science Foundation, Department of Justice, and Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities.

The figures also do not include discretionary stimulus funds awarded to the different states’ governors, which in New Mexico included Democrat Bill Richardson and then Republican Susana Martinez in the years of the Great Recession.

Of the agency spending listed in ProPublica’s data base, the greatest amount of stimulus funds spent in Dona Ana County ($83,841, 421) was by far channeled through the Department of Education. The funds helped keep the Las Cruces, Hatch and Gadsden public schools afloat.

Centered in Las Cruces, the state’s second largest university, NMSU, received stimulus dollars from several agencies and used the money to help students pay for school by means of Pell Grants and work-study, and to underwrite university-sponsored research in algae bio-fuels, wind power and other subjects, among many expenditures.

The second biggest stream of spending ($43,109, 747)  flowed through the Department of State, with all of the money budgeted for the ongoing Rio Grande levee reconstruction project that is overseen by the department’s International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) headquartered in neighboring El Paso, Texas. The IBWC sub-contracted the work for designing, developing and delivering the levee reconstruction to 13 private consulting, engineering and construction companies.

The bulk of the contract money went to Don Kelly Construction ($23,808,191), Lakeshore Engineering Services of Detroit ($7,730,628) and Briston Construction, LLC ($5,092,576) of Arizona.

Registering  $31,102, 169, the Department of Army accounted for the third largest category of spending, followed up by the Department of Transportation ($30,785,019), which supported  highway construction projects.

Like elsewhere, businesses in Dona Ana County faced a credit squeeze as the financial sector teetered on collapse at the onset of the Great Recession.

Ranked the fifth source of spending by ProPublica, Small Business Administration (SBA) stimulus funding amounted to $20,785, 019, or about eight percent of the relevant  expenditures in Dona Ana County between 2009 and 2012.

A relative handful of county businesses got SBA stimulus money, mainly in the form of loans. Among the outfits receiving the assistance were two hotels, Holiday Inn and Plaza Suites;  the popular Dickey’s barbeque chain; Young Guns, Inc., a chile production and distribution enterprise based in the Hatch Valley; Jensen Marketing, LLC; Southwest Sport and Spine Center, Inc; Organ Mountain Waters, LLC; Parker Amusement Company. Inc, and several others.

In Dona Ana County, other stimulus money went to improve the Santa Teresa Port of Entry on the Mexican border, fund a roofing project for 35 units in Sunland Park, promote community health and much more.

Located west of Dona Ana is Luna County,  where 25,133 people resided according to the 2010 census. The border county  is known for its chile and other agricultural crops, the Deming Duck Race and persistent high unemployment rates, which at 16.6 percent stood at more than double the official state average of 7.4 percent in July 2012.

According to ProPublica’s data,  Luna County got $18,121,779 in stimulus funds, with more than half the amount ($9,975, 232) channeled from the Department of Education into the public schools.  A small but notable category of funds was filtered through the Department of Agriculture ($1,501,865) for farm operating loans, child nutritional programs and low-to-moderate income housing.

Situated farther west on the Arizona border, tiny Hidalgo County (2010 population 4,854) received even more money than Luna.

More than two-thirds of¬† Hildalgo‚Äės¬† $21,005, 604 in stimulus allocations tracked by ProPublica, or $14,415,001, were spent on constructing a new operating base for the U.S. Border Patrol and renovating a¬† port of entry at Antelope Wells, a remote border crossing with Mexico. According to a recent report by Albuquerque television station KRQE, electrical power glitches have set back the opening of the upgraded port of entry by one year. Extra costs came to $500,000, KRQE reported.

Readers interested in more details about stimulus spending in New Mexico counties and other U.S. states can go to the following website:


-Kent Paterson

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