News made at Wednesday’s Elephant Butte city council meeting: local housing starts are up, so is patronage at the municipal golf course, and raises for city councilors are in the works.
NEW CONSTRUCTION ON THE RISE
A holdover from the receding pandemic—the trend of working remotely from home—has boosted housing starts in the Southwest, including in Elephant Butte, according to Lindsey Moore, the city’s fire department and land use administrator.
Moore gave a mid-year report on building permits at the Elephant Butte City Council meeting on June 16. In the first six months of this year Moore has issued 68 permits, which include new homes and commercial buildings. as well as home and commercial improvements. Among them are 10 new-home building permits.
Moore reported that she has recently received inquiries about two more new home permits for a residential neighborhood “near the beach.” So far she has received neither of these applications.
Some of the new-home permits have been issued to people who own summer weekend homes and now want to live in Elephant Butte full time. “There are six or seven families who have moved from larger cities” to become full-time residents,” Moore also noted. “It’s happening all over the Southwest.”
Last year, the city issued a total of 110 building permits.
SIERRA DEL RIO GOLF COURSE
The pandemic’s effect on Sierra del Rio Golf Course has not been all bad, according to Richard Holcomb, managing partner of Spirit Golf, the company hired by the city to manage the golf course and its restaurant and bar. In his first annual report to the city council, Holcomb noted golf was one of the few outdoor activities people could pursue during the pandemic.
Rounds of golf played at the course from June 1, 2020, to May 31, 2021, totaled 12,236, according to Holcomb. This represents an increase of 2,700 rounds from the year before. In the first five months of this year, 6,289 rounds were booked. Based on this track record, Holcomb said the company is likely to attain its goal of booking 14,000 rounds by the end of May 2022.
Improving the golf greens has been Spirit Golf’s focus, Holcomb said, adding that the company has received “rave reviews” from locals and out-of-state players. He claimed the grounds are nearing “pro-golf tournament standards.”
Spirit Golf has created a nursery alongside Hole 10. Holcomb said the company planned to grow various grasses suitable for different seasons and parts of the course, but the pandemic has affected the supply chain. The “big box stores buying 60 percent of the seed,” make it a scarce commodity.
Sierra Del Rio’s restaurant and bar have both been severely hampered due to COVID-19 restrictions. In addition, the “onslaught of free government money,” Holcomb stated in the written report supplementing his oral presentation, “made it nearly impossible to hire staff.”
To compensate, hours and days of operation were cut and breakfast was eliminated, Holcomb said, adding that he has also improved staff efficiencies. He was pleased with customer turnout on Memorial Day and Mother’s Day, yet he worries about attracting more customers than can be efficiently served over Father’s Day and Fourth of July. “It’s an interesting dilemma,” he noted.
“We are optimistic we will be able to expand service once the government handouts end and people go back to work,” Holcomb said. Already lifted is the restriction on placing a bar cart on the course. “We are actively seeking part- and full-time help to re-introduce this much requested service.”
A document included in the meeting packet gave an overview of the golf course’s revenues and expenses since the city was gifted the facility in April 2017. Through May 26 of this year, the Sierra del Rio operation has taken in $2,483,473. The city’s subsidy over the four years of its ownership totals $1,164,423. Expenses during that time have amounted to $3,669,349, for a loss of $1,185,875 without the city subsidy. With the city subsidy, the operation has lost $21,452.
COUNCILORS’ PROPOSED RAISES
City Councilman Michael Williams placed a discussion of raising the salaries paid Elephant Butte city councilors on the June 16 agenda. He asked city staff to gather data about salaries paid to other local government boards for comparison purposes.
Mayor Pro Tem Kim Skinner, who has served on the council for 14 years, noted that her starting salary was $111 a month. “I’m currently at about $144 a month,” she said.
The salary currently paid Elephant Butte mayor is slightly more than $312 a month, Williams told the Sun in a phone interview.
Skinner said the Elephant Butte council salaries are a fraction of those paid to the Sierra County Commission, probably as little as one twelfth. Sierra County Commissioners are paid about $21,300 a year, Williams told the Sun. That averages out to $1,775 a month.
The mayor of the Village of Williamsburg is paid $600 a month, Trustees are paid $100 a month and $25 for each meeting they attend while serving on other boards such as the Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission.
Truth or Consequences city commissioners are paid $6,000 a year. Starting in January 2022, they will be paid $12,000 a year or $1,000 a month.
After discussion, it was agreed that Elephant Butte City Attorney Ben Johnson will draft an ordinance that increases the mayor’s pay to $750 a month and councilors’ pay to $500 a month, with a cost-of-living increase to be added each year.
Johnson said the T or C City Commission raised salaries by passing a resolution, but state law 3-10-3 states raises can only be instituted via ordinance. The statute reads: “A noncharter municipality [i.e., those created by general law, such as Elephant Butte and T or C] may provide by ordinance for the compensation of the mayor and other individual members of the governing body.”
An opinion issued by the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General in 1981 prohibits a governing body from giving itself a raise.
The Elephant Butte councilors agreed that if the salary increase is passed, it would not start until January 2022, when the winners of this November’s councilmanic election take office.
The council could experience a high turnover this election cycle. Only City Councilman Travis Atwell’s seat is not up. Seats held by Mayor Edna Trager, Mayor Pro Tem Skinner and Councilman Williams are up. Winning candidates for the seats will serve a four-year term.
City Councilman Gerald LaFont announced last month he will resign on July 1. His seat is up for election, and the winning candidate will complete the last two years of his four-year term.