By Oscar Vásquez Butler
Doña Ana County Commissioner, District 1

One of the stated goals of the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners for 2003 is to identify meaningful and realistic ways by which living conditions in the county’s 37 designated colonias can be improved. Colonias are defined as areas in which basic infrastructure – water, wastewater, improved roads, access to utilities, etc. – is inadequate or non-existent. Across New Mexico, about 78,000 people are estimated to be residents of colonias; of those, about 40,000 – more than half – are residents of Doña Ana County. Many of those are in my district.

For the past five years, Doña Ana County has been involved in an ambitious and unprecedented initiative to provide wastewater service to thousands of residents – many of whom live in colonias – along the Rio Grande corridor from Garfield to Santa Teresa. Using primarily grant funding, the county has invested about $58 million to take thousands of septic systems offline, thereby improving community health and protecting the integrity of the valley’s groundwater. In some communities, the county also is involved in establishing safe and reliable water systems, but in most areas, the county is partnering with existing mutual domestic water associations to improve service and reliability.

Even with this level of investment, the remaining need is massive in scope. The daunting task of improving livability in colonias will be an ongoing and ambitious effort in which the county must continue to develop and nurture working partnerships with our federal and state legislators. We must attract funding for streets, sidewalks, adequate housing, adequate lighting, natural gas distribution systems, meaningful public transportation, parks and greenbelts. In addition, the county must continue its efforts to bring economic development to the county, thereby providing jobs that will allow residents to lift themselves out of poverty and insure themselves and their families against medical ailments, natural disasters and human predation.

The county’s mission is to protect the health, welfare and safety of its residents. Through increased commitment to law enforcement, a consistent rural addressing program that enhances emergency response and other ongoing efforts, the county is doing everything it can to meet the obligation imbued by its mission statement. Still, much remains to be done. As a border county, Doña Ana County has unique challenges and needs that the federal and state governments must continue to recognize and support.

For instance, health care on the border is complicated by the continual influx of ambitious but illegal residents, most of whom are working hard to build better lives for themselves. Law enforcement on the border is complicated by the prevalence of drug traffic and the human cost of addiction, incarceration and – in the best cases – treatment. Quality of life for all Doña Ana County residents is compromised by one of the nation’s and state’s lowest per-capita income averages, which is typical of a border county.

In addition to needing support and financial resources from the state and federal levels, the county requires the resolve of its residents to address these issues and to raise the collective quality of life for all of the adults and children who choose to call Doña Ana County their home. We must continue our efforts to foster a collective consciousness of compassion and investment that will pay off dividends of healthier, happier communities within the borders of our county.

We have to take the mantra of “Leave no child behind” seriously. To properly address the issues by which this goal can be achieved, Doña Ana County requires funding, commitment, partnerships and community buy-in. We’re committed as a government, and we are continuing to nurture the partnerships that will sustain our goals. Community buy-in is the job of local politicians, and I believe we’re on the right track. That leaves funding, and for that we need an immediate infusion of about $13 million to continue our present pace of improvement. We’re seeking that investment from our federal and state legislators, and we’re hopeful and confident that the community will stand steadfast beside us as we make our case.