While countless boards, commissions and committees provide guidance and help officials decide how to spend public money from the federal to the local level, local governments here are finding it tough to fill open slots on those often overlooked advisory boards.
Silver City has nine such entities, while the county has three active advisory boards.
At their June 25 work session, Grant County commissioners bemoaned the difficulty in finding applicants to fill positions on those three boards: the Tu Casa behavioral health treatment center, the Grant County Lodgers Tax Advisory Board and the Grant County Public Shooting Range Advisory Board.
“At the state level, there are also a large number of open positions on boards like this,” said District 3 County Commissioner Alicia Edwards.
She addressed anyone who might have been watching the live broadcast of the commission meeting.
“These are important, and we would really appreciate you considering this part of your civic duty and think about applying,” she said into the camera.
The town of Silver City also has open positions on its Lodgers’ Tax Advisory Board, the Cemetery Board and the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Finding members of the public to fill these positions can be difficult, perhaps because the work is thankless or — in the case of the Silver City Lodgers’ Tax Advisory Board — because the work has little consequence. Other advisory boards, where just about everyone would seem to have a vested interest, like the town’s Cemetery Board, are still hard-pressed to find applicants.
Silver City recently appointed a fourth member to its Planning and Zoning Commission, but is still looking for a fifth member. Planning and Zoning has been difficult to keep filled, even though they make important decisions on how people make use of their property around town. Commissioners meet once a month — provided there is an issue to discuss — and decide things like allowing exemptions to the town’s zoning laws.
There’s not a lot of work involved and the decisions made by the commission are important, yet Silver City has difficulty finding volunteers.
So dismal have the prospects been for the county Lodgers Tax Advisory Board — read: no prospects — County Assessor Raul Turrieta spoke up at last Tuesday’s commission meeting and told the county manager that he might throw his hat in the ring, so long as County Attorney Abigail Burgess confirmed there was no conflict of interest.
At their regular meeting two days later, after discussing the 11 candidates who have applied for three positions on the Gila Regional Medical Center board of trustees, District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne joked, “Can we decide that one of the eight people who aren’t selected have to serve on the Lodgers Tax Board?”
Both of the lodgers tax advisory boards are required to exist by state law in order for the county and town to access the revenue collected from local taxes on lodging — paid by hotels and motels, and now short-term rentals like Airbnbs, too. This translates to about $385,000 annually in Silver City, and roughly $60,000 in Grant County.
“The Lodgers’ Tax Board makes recommendations to the town manager on the lodgers tax awards — when people apply for that money,” said Ann Mackie, town clerk for Silver City. “The board helps determine who gets the money, they review the applications from groups like the Mimbres Region Arts Council, the Gila Conservation Coalition, Tour of the Gila and other groups that put on events that draw visitors to the town.
“It’s a five-member board,” Mackie said. “Three resigned — not exactly at once — when it was decided the board was no longer going to divvy up the $200,000” allocated for the awards.
Alex Brown, town manager for Silver City, made the decision this year to award about $185,000 out of the $363,000 total to marketing company Sunny505, and this year the Lodgers’ Tax Advisory Board will essentially be awarding access to the advertising services provided by the company.
While the town tries to fill the three vacant positions, Assistant Town Manager James Marshall was asked to join the board two weeks ago as a member of the general public in order for the advisory board to have three members — the necessary quorum — which allows them to give their recommendations on who will be given this year’s awards.
Since the advisory board is no longer dividing up a large pot of money, but rather rubber-stamping awards predetermined by the town manager, it’s clear why it’s difficult to find members for the board. It’s no longer a position with much weight — although even when cash was at stake, the Town Council often voted to scrap the board’s recommendations in favor of their own priorities.
In the case of the Grant County Lodgers Tax Advisory Board, which currently needs a member from the lodging business community to round out that five-member board, there’s only about $60,000 to distribute this year. That’s not a very significant amount of money, which perhaps explains the dearth of applicants to the position.
The nine-member Tu Casa Advisory Board is seeking a “consumer/peer” member for a three-year term, meaning someone who has received services like the ones Tu Casa provides. The Tu Casa board membership — like all the advisory boards in the town and county — is unpaid; and this would require someone to effectively raise their hand and say “Hey, I had a substance abuse problem” in order to join the board.
“If you apply for the consumer position, you are automatically telling people that you have issues with substance abuse,” Edwards told the Daily Press. “It’s also a time commitment.”
The last consumer member of the board resigned within months of being appointed.
Commissioners said they would approach the nursing school and the social work program at Western New Mexico University for candidates, or avenues to candidates, for the Tu Casa board.
Commissioners are also looking for a member for the county Shooting Range Advisory Board — which is proving harder than one might think.
“I am struck by the fact we have openings on all these boards and have no applicants,” Edwards said. At last week’s work session, commissioners brainstormed sources for someone with an interest in shooting.
“Shooting sports are the biggest thing happening at 4-H,” Edwards said. “Can a 4-H high school senior do this?
“It’s hard to get people interested in boards generally,” she told the Daily Press. “It’s a time commitment, and people are overcommitted on a lot of different levels. I think that these kinds of commitments aren’t as important to people — or they don’t have as much time for them as they used to.”
Are cellphones and other electronic devices to blame for the lack of civic-minded applicants to advisory groups?
“Yes!” Edwards laughed. “And Facebook.”
Geoffrey Plant may be reached at geoff@scdaily press.com.