Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

As Debbie O’Malley (Dist.1) leaves her seat on the Bernalillo County Commission, The Paper. spoke with her about her three top accomplishments. 

O’Malley was a City Counselor prior to running for the Commission seat that Michelle Lujan Grisham was vacating to focus attention on her campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. O’Malley completed the year left on MLG’s Commission term and was reelected twice, serving a total of nine years.

Secure Water Access for To’Hajiilee

To’Hajiilee, a 2,000-plus-resident Navajo satellite community 20 miles outside of Albuquerque, has been trying for over 16 years to find a solution to their critical shortage of potable water. What water remains for To’Hajiilee isn’t drinkable. For years, the community has been hauling water for all of their needs.

“This is a project that’s dear to me and it needs to finish,” O’Malley said. Souder Miller and Associates engineered the pipeline for To’Hajiilee. Funding was approved in February 2022 from the state water trust and finance authority by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority. Of the $7.7 million funding needed, $7 million dollars will come from a grant, with the Navajo Nation repaying nearly $800,000 as a loan.

The Bernalillo Commission set aside $1 million in case the expenses exceeded the project’s budget. They just released that money to cover additional costs.

“Initially they said they didn’t need it, and then they said they needed it as the costs have really gone up,” O’Malley explained. She said the project is still working on getting the needed equipment and trying to acquire as much pipe as possible before starting construction.

Behavioral Health Initiative

To fund a Behavioral Health Initiative (BHI), the county imposed a 1/8th-of-1% gross-receipts tax in 2015 to “develop a comprehensive, well-networked and accessible continuum of care for children, youth and adults in need of behavioral health services” in partnership with federal, state and local governments plus the nonprofit and private sector.

“I was very engaged in advocating for the funding and spearheading the campaign,” O’Malley said. “People were really focused on behavioral health after what happened with James Boyd. I considered it a window of opportunity to go in there and we did. A survey we sent out came back very strongly supportive, so now we have approximately $25 million a year for mental health.”

BHI has been moved from the Department of Behavioral Health Services and merged with criminal justice reform efforts, according to the county’s website. This was done to create a new office that “represents the county’s critical, non-law enforcement response to help reduce crime, lower recidivism and improve outcomes for those needing treatment and support for behavioral health disorders.”

Nothing has been built in seven years; however, the county has made an agreement with UNM Hospital as a medical partner and a Behavior Health Crisis Center is projected to open in 2024 on a UNM building site.

Tiny Home Village

The Tiny Home Village in Albuquerque is a community living space and transitional housing program located at Texas St. SE. Individuals or couples live in one of 30 tiny homes that are 120 sq. ft. Each has heating and cooling, a bed, shelving, and a desk. Villagers have access to communal bathrooms, a kitchen and indoor/outdoor living space. Additionally, there is a community garden and dog park.

“I strongly supported the tiny home village. Currently there’s 18 people in there now.” O’Malley said the biggest obstacle to full occupancy has been staffing since the county runs the project and staffing goes through its Human Resources Department. “Keeping staff, getting staff, has a lot to do with the fact that the county runs it. It takes three and sometimes six months to hire staff.”

What’s Next?

O’Malley has accepted positions on two nonprofit boards: The Sawmill Community Land Trust where she served as an Executive Director prior to her political career, and Peanut Butter & Jelly, a nonprofit that supports families. O’Malley said she appreciated the opportunity she was given to represent her community. “I want to thank the people of District 1, with whom I had the privilege of working.”

O’Malley might not be done with politics. “If you ask me today, I’d say no. The door is still open. Things happen and I don’t want to just close that door. I definitely wouldn’t run for the House. Maybe the Senate if there was an opening.”