Lea County Commissioner Ron Black chaired his last regular commission meeting about two weeks ago. State law prohibits a commissioner from serving more than two terms.
“It’s something I enjoyed doing and I’m glad I did it but I’m ready to retire again, now,” said Black.
As the Lea County commissioner serving District 3 for the past eight years, Black passes the baton to Commissioner-elect Gary Eidson, who was elected to the position in the November general election.
He first retired in 1999 after 33 years teaching at the New Mexico Junior College, serving 22 of those years as NMJC’s basketball coach. He moved to Hobbs in 1966 as one of the inaugural staff members of the junior college.
At age 74, Black plans to stay busy.
“I plan to stay on the board of the junior college and I plan to stay on board of New Horizons Foundation,” he said. “I’m a deacon at my church, Taylor Memorial Baptist. Those things will keep me from being bored.”
During a recess of the last commission meeting, county officials and employees honored Black with a retirement reception, complete with luncheon, cake, gifts and speakers.
Recalling with the News-Sun his service on the commission, Black said, “It’s quite a change from my real job. It’s a bit different than teaching history and coaching basketball, but it was a good experience.”
Even as a teacher of history and government, he yearned for public service.
“Many years ago, I used to tell my government classes that when I retired I was going to run for the state legislature. I’d always been interested in government. I taught government my whole life,” he said. “I was serious about it. … Of course, after my wife, Jan, got sick there was no way I could do the state legislature.”
Black praised the professionalism and attitude of county workers.
“One of the good things I really enjoyed about this job is the quality of county employees,” he said. “One of the things I’m going to miss about this job is being able to pick up the phone and solve a problem for somebody.”
What distinguishes Lea County, Black said, are efforts at economic development.
“Diversifying is key. That’s what sets Lea County apart from the other counties,” he said. “Every county in New Mexico takes care of the roads, the sheriff’s office and jail, the basic fundamental things a county does. I think we’ve done a good job taking care of the basic fundamentals for the county.”
Among the basics, he listed 1,200 miles of road, more than half of them paved or chip-sealed, a premier public safety feature in the Lea County Communications Authority, an accredited jail and increased budget for the sheriff’s department.
“Of course, the oil business has put a real strain on the road department to keep the roads up in the southern part of the county,” he said. “We have a road down there that once had probably five or six vehicles a day, but has probably 5,000 vehicles a day now, mostly heavy trucks.”
Black avoids taking much credit for the economic development, dating the inauguration of the effort to the county’s participation in bringing in the Lea County Correctional Facility.
“They recognized then we have a cyclical economy that goes up and down and we needed something to tide us over during the bad times,” he said. “Ever since then, the county has been involved in economic development.”
He characterized the commission eight years ago, when he first took a seat on it, as strong, with Greg Fulfer, Dale Dunlap, Mike Whitehead and Hector Ramirez.
“Those guys were great mentors for me, helping me to get off to a good start,” he said. “They really put Lea County first. They were all businessmen and all of them were serving as a sacrifice. Their businesses suffered because of the time they spent on the commission, but they really believed in what they were doing.”
Black is a strong advocate of industrial revenue bonds (IRB) as a win-win economic plus for all government taxing entities and the private business.
He recounted an instance of a rumor that DCP Midstream was considering a gas plant somewhere in West Texas or southeastern New Mexico.
“We just got in the car and went over to Midland — Greg Fulfer (then commission chairman), Mike Gallagher (county manager) and I — and explained the IRB to them and before the day was over we had a commitment for them to build the gas plant in Lea County,” Black said.
With all the gathering lines, that was about a $500 million project, providing jobs in addition to revenue for the county government, the school districts and the junior college.
“I think the county commission has been really proactive in economic development, in trying to diversify the economy some,” Black said.
That diversification may have contributed to the county’s fiscal success during the last oilfield downturn.
“We went through a period that our revenue took a drastic drop because we’re so dependent on oil and gas, but we made it through that period without raising any taxes,” Black said. “We took a double hit because at the same time, the state put that burden of indigent care on us, which is $4-5 million a year.
“We made it through that period without raising any taxes, we didn’t lay off a single employee, we didn’t cut anybody’s salary, we didn’t incur any indebtedness, we came through in good shape and now the county’s in great shape financially,” he said.
Meanwhile, the county remained a cash-payer.
“Everything we’ve built has been paid for in cash. We didn’t build anything unless we had the cash on hand. We didn’t even start the judicial center until we had the money on hand,” Black said.
“Same thing with the (Lea County Regional Airport) terminal. We’ve done a lot of infrastructure that doesn’t get a lot of attention. We’ve certainly spent a lot of money on the fairgrounds,” he added. “We’ve fixed up the community centers. We’ve done some things for the rural fire departments. But everything’s been paid for in cash. I think Lea County has always been fiscally responsible. They’ve always been careful with the money.”
Some projects are still under way, leaving Black a little disappointed he’s term-limited.
“When they get that judicial complex done and that veterans memorial park done, it’s going to make downtown Lovington look a whole lot nicer,” he said. “The thing I hate most about leaving is we have all these projects going. I would like to see the airport terminal project through. There’s always going to be something.”
Most disappointing, though, is the delay of the planned extended equine center at NMJC.
“I felt that would be a quality of life project for people interested in that kind of thing, and an economic development project for Lea County. I’m disappointed we never got that done,” he said. “I felt we let the rest of the parties in the quality of life initiative down in not following through on that project.”
He explained the bids came in higher than expected about the same time as oil slump, so the county delayed the project.
To those who would want to be a county commissioner, Black explained the responsibility to the county as a whole is a priority.
“Generally speaking, I think what’s best for Lea County is going to be best for your district in the long run,” he said. “Don’t go in with an agenda. Don’t go in where your main interest is just one thing. Go in with an open mind and with an attitude that you’re going to do what’s best for Lea County.”
So, what will former commissioner Black do in his new retirement? An avid golfer, he no longer feels the need to travel out of town for a nice golf course.
“I don’t even enjoy going out of town to play golf as much as I used to since they built Rock-wind,” he said. “I used to love to go to Albuquerque for a few days and play on nice courses up there. Now, I can stay here and play with my friends on a course that’s just as nice.”
But he does have a motor home he hopes to pull out of the garage, dust off the cobwebs and do a little traveling with his wife.