T or C City Commission approves a second multimillion-dollar water system replacement project

by Kathleen Sloan | November 2, 2021
6 min read

Truth or Consequences will take on a $7.5 million water system replacement project in addition to the nearly $10 million water infrastructure project that will probably break ground in January 2022. As T or C finally addresses some of its long-neglected infrastructure problems, the city’s indebtedness mounts with limited public disclosure or discussion.

City Manager Bruce Swingle espouses greater transparency in the future.

The city commission never formally approved the $7.5 million project, about which little information has been presented in public meetings. The commission did, however, unanimously approve applying for the needed financing in the form of a loan/grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at its March 24 regular meeting.

A public hearing on the grant application was held at the meeting in advance of this vote. Because the application was not included in the meeting packet, it was impossible for the public or the city commission to make informed statements or judgments. Three members of the public spoke, including civic activists Ron Fenn and Susan Crow. Both pointed out the need for more information about the project. Mayor Sandra Whitehead cut off Fenn’s comments, claiming they were irrelevant to the grant application.  

As the then acting city manager, Traci Alvarez presented a bare minimum of detail about the water infrastructure project and the grant/loan at the public hearing. Alvarez related that the project would replace about 4.9 miles of water lines and would “greatly diminish the amount of service disruptions due to water line breakages caused by pressure surges.” She also stated the request to the USDA would be for more than $7.5 million, but the grant and loan amounts would be unknown until the award was given. She told the commissioners that their acceptance of the loan/grant award would be placed on a future agenda as a discussion/action item. That never happened.

During his regular report to the commission at its Aug. 25 meeting, City Manager Swingle confirmed that the city had been awarded the USDA financing, which consists of a grant of about $2.7 million and a loan for about $4.8 million.

Discussion and approval of the $7.5 million grant/loan was not on the agenda, however. According to the meeting minutes, Swingle informed the commissioners that they had already approved the acceptance letter for the USAD award. This was not the case; the commission was never asked for its approval.

At last week’s commission meeting on Oct. 27, the city commission was asked to approve a contract for the project engineering, not the grant/loan. With no discussion, the commission unanimously approved a “Professional Services Agreement with Wilson and Company for Water System Performance Improvements Phase 1,” as the contract was identified on the meeting agenda.

graphic of proposed waterline replacements for T or C
Wilson & Company’s preliminary engineering study summarizes the work to be undertaken as follows: “This $7,531,000.00 project funded by USDA addresses the high-pressure issues in the `West’ and `Williamsburg’ areas by replacing the Cook St. to Morgan St. main transmission line and installing main lines PRV [pressure reducing valves] to eliminate high pressures issues within the City’s water system. This project replaces 6.2 percent of the existing waterlines within the city that are 6 inches or less diameter, with new pipeline PVC C-900 DR-18 pipelines 6 inches or greater. This project will replace 26.7 percent of pipe over 30 years old, this replacement also upgrades around 16.9 percent of the Asbestos Cement (AC), Cast iron (Cl), and Ductile Iron (DI) material in the existing system. All waterlines will be replaced via open trench by placing the new line parallel to the existing and abandoning the existing waterline in place. The new waterline is assumed to be installed in the shoulder of the road, with 6-12′ of pavement removal, and removal of any sidewalks and, curb and gutters. Areas of the City of Truth or Consequences were evaluated based on current GIS information, upsizing the existing water line to a 6, 8, 10, and 12 inch will significantly adjust available pressure in the City as well as provide for better fire flow capacity including important areas such as the City’s hospital and a City’s high school. This alternative significantly regulates the pressure throughout the City and provide for better fire flow capacity. All water meters along these line replacements will be replaced.”

Before the vote, Alvarez, who is now the assistant city manager, informed the commission that Wilson & Company had already completed a 300-page preliminary engineering report on the project, “which is available.”

The performance services agreement, which was included in the meeting packet, states Wilson will receive more than $1.1 million, or about 14 percent of the $7.5 million grant/loan, for engineering and construction management services.

Also included in the Oct. 27 packet was the USDA “letter of conditions,” dated Aug. 24. It states that the payback period for the $4.8 million loan will be 40 years and advises the city to “plug in” an estimated 1.375 interest rate until the actual rate is determined.

Alvarez told the Sun in a phone interview on Oct. 26 that the loan will be paid from water user fees, but that water rates will not have to be immediately increased again. The city increased water rates about 50 percent last year to fulfill a requirement to receive the $10 million grant/loan from the USDA. That USDA award also required yearly rate increases. Consequently, the city has announced that it will increase water rates each year consistent with the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index. Early last month, the city raised water rates by 5.4 percent.

City Manager Bruce Swingle, in a phone interview on Oct. 27, said the USDA “continues looking at our rates,” and “if they continue going up each year,” the user fees will be sufficient to cover the debt from both the $10 million and $7.5 million grant/loan awards, in addition to the other long-standing debt the water department carries.

“Adding debt to the water utility is the only way to deal with the infrastructure problems,” Swingle said. “We discovered there is no free money out there, only grant/loan combinations. We are going to incur more debt. All we can do is make sure we are using the money in the most efficient way. We have to get these 15 to 20 water line breaks a week under control.”

The Sun asked why the city had no master plan in place before taking on two big water projects and whether the city should have addressed the water pressure problems first, since they are causing newly repaired and older pipes to break repeatedly, according to a report given to the city commission by Water and Wastewater Departments Director Jesse Cole several months ago.

The pressure problems are not citywide, Swingle responded, but “isolated” in Williamsburg and the southern and northern parts of T or C. The $10 million water project will replace water lines downtown. It will also add a second, larger chlorination-treatment tank at the Cook Street Station.

A master plan is soon to be completed by Wilson & Company, Swingle said. Begun about a year ago, it “will be very comprehensive.”

Asked why Wilson’s preliminary engineering report on the water pressure project was not presented to the public and city commission, Swingle said: “What was shared in the past [before his tenure began the first week of May], I don’t know. I think we could do a much better job of articulating these projects. We could have the engineer explain each project so the public and commissioners understand them to a much higher degree.”

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com 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.

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