Truth or Consequences takes on more debt to fix ailing water system; Mayor Pro-Tem Brendan Tolley questions burden on residents

by Kathleen Sloan | June 10, 2020
4 min read
Truth or Consequences Mayor Pro-Tem Brendan Tolley pointed out how high the current debt load is on residents, while acknowledging more debt was necessary to fix a water-system crisis.

“I am leery of continuing to increase the City’s debt. It is not sustainable,” Tolley said.

In the next breath he added, “We have deferred [utility] maintenance too many years.”

A few minutes later the City Commission approved acceptance of a $712,146 loan/grant. Nearly $260,000 principal debt and $71,000 in cash match will be added to the utility-payers’ burden, whose fees will go up July 1.

The money will be used to design and replace the Morgan Street and Cielo Vista pump stations, which have no “redundancy,” City Manager Morris Madrid said, adding the City has paid over $10,000 to rent a pump over the last two months when Morgan Street’s breaks down.

Madrid addressed Tolley’s comments on residents’ debt burden, claiming there is a difference between debt paid off from “taxes” and debt paid off from utility fees.

“The burden on the taxpayer is valid,” Madrid said. But the new debt will be “funded from enterprise funds,” he said. “Customers pay in proportion to their use. . . it doesn’t create additional burden without additional use. That’s why the water rate increased. . . We do not want to increase the tax burden.”

The water fees, Madrid admitted, are going up a large amount; about 50 percent or more, depending on usage.

Therefore Madrid’s statement is incorrect. The burden rises with rate increases. Besides water rates, the solid waste fee will go up 5 percent and the sewer fee will go up 5 percent on July 1, as they have for the past four years.

Madrid’s distinction between taxes and utility fees also ignores reality.

It is true that most cities depend on property taxes to fund projects and to feed the General Fund, which pays for governmental activities, such as law enforcement and administration salaries. Therefore most cities mostly monitor the debt burden on residents by looking at the property-tax burden.

But Truth or Consequences is not the norm. Property values are very low and the revenue property taxes generate are correspondingly low. According to the City’s 2018-2019 audit, the most recent available, the city collected less than $152,500 in property taxes.

To measure the residents’ debt burden by monitoring the property-tax rate is to ignore how the City really operates. The City operates mainly on utility fees, not taxes. The debt burden is borne by utility payers, not taxpayers.

The City transferred about $1.9 million out of “enterprise” or utility funds to make up for deficit spending in the General Fund and other funds, according to the 2018-2019 audit. The current budget states $2.56 million will be transferred out of the utilities by June 30, 2020, when the fiscal year ends.

The City has consistently transferred millions of dollars out of the utilities each year, creating the “deferred maintenance” problem Tolley mentioned. The utility money was not churned back into the utilities and now they are in crisis.

Again, Truth or Consequences is not the norm. Most cities run their “enterprise funds” as businesses, making sure they are self-sustaining, with each utilities’ fees kept separate to pay for that utility’s debt, maintenance and operations.

Madrid and Mayor Sandra Whitehead claimed that “lending sources,” including the New Mexico Finance Authority, “closely monitor” the City’s debt burden.

But that claim does not hold true for the recent review by Rural Communities Assistance Corporation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant/loan for $9.4 million to fix water pipes downtown.

The Sierra County Sun requested RCAC’s debt-evaluation documents. They showed RCAC used Madrid’s budget figures and not audited figures to determining how much rate payers could bear. Madrid’s figures did not include transfers out to cover deficit spending. Madrid’s figures also did not show the City pooled utility money.

Pooling funds obscured if the individual utility were self-sustaining or not, whether it could spare cash for deficit spending or not, whether it needed crisis repairs or not. In other words, the utility was not run as a business.

RCAC looked at the water utility in isolation, a false picture, in determining the 50-percent and more rate increase.

The debt load is going up at a precipitous rate, probably because the City is presenting a similar false front to other lenders.

For more information on the debt, see: Truth or Consequences per capita debt is almost 60 percent higher than recommended,” and “Truth or Consequences capital projects for 2020-2021 could top $16 million.” 

The Sun put in an Inspection-of-Public-Records-Act request for New Mexico Finance Authority documents demonstrating how it evaluated the City’s debt capacity over the last year. The City usually takes the maximum 15 days to fulfill such requests.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.


Truth or Consequences capital projects for 2020-2021 could top $16 million
by Kathleen Sloan | June 4, 2020

It appears the COVID-19 pandemic will not slow City spending this upcoming budget year.  The Truth or Consequences City Commission passed a preliminary budget last…

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