The Truth or Consequences City Commission held a 3.25-hour meeting on June 23 at which several items of import, including the city’s water emergency, “dire” financial straits and a resolution confirming the three commission seats up for election in November, were discussed, reported and/or acted upon.
WATER EMERGENCY BEING FIXED “AS WE SPEAK”
City Manager Bruce Swingle said during his report at the end of the meeting that he had an “urgent update” related to the June 19 water emergency notice posted on the city’s public information Facebook page, which stated:
Message from the City Manager: Water Usage
Due to extreme drought conditions and the recent heat wave, the City’s water production is not keeping pace with water consumption. We are asking citizens to conserve water to the extent possible for the next few weeks. Thank you for your cooperation.
Swingle reported that the city itself had stopped irrigating land that used “potable water” and had asked “high water users” to conserve and “all agreed.” He also reported that Water and Wastewater Department Director Jesse Cole had texted him before the meeting with an update that the city had made headway in storing up water.
With only two of eight wells in the city’s well field operational, Swingle informed the city commission that, given the water crisis, he had made an emergency purchase of services to fix Well 7, rather than waiting for bids submitted in response to a request for proposals to repair Wells 7 and 6.
“They [an unnamed company] are working on it as we speak,” Swingle said, adding that he expected the work to be completed the following day.
Well 6 “is not an emergency and can wait,” Swingle said, implying that the RFP results will determine what company is hired to fix that well.
Since Well 7 will soon be fixed, the water emergency will be over “before the weekend,” Swingle advised the commissioners.
For more information on the state of city wells, including Wells 6 and 7, see the Sun’s “Related” article at the end of this story.
CITY FINANCES: “IN DIRE STRAITS”
The city’s finances are “really in dire straits,” Swingle said in his report, addressing the issue of insufficient cash flow.
“Carol [Chief Financial Officer Kirkpatrick] is having kittens,” Swingle said. “There is a lot of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’”
Citing the $2.7 million that must be transferred out of the electric, water, wastewater and solid waste utility funds to cover expenses, Swingle acknowledged: “We are taking every penny they have for the General Fund.”
The city’s recent emergency purchases—repair of an electric transformer and the cleaning of Well 7 and trouble-shooting its pump—are evidence of the utility departments’ not having enough money to take care of ongoing maintenance and equipment replacement, Swingle said.
“This has to stop now. You will get through this year if the projections [for revenue] are accurate, but you will have nothing [to transfer] the following year,” Swingle said.
“This has been going on for decades,” Swingle said, because past city commissions have not wanted “to make hard decisions.”
He announced that he would take the 2021-2022 budget projections of revenue, expenditures and transfers to senior staff “to get their feedback.” The next step will be to hold a budget workshop with the city commissioners and senior staff. “And we need to do so immediately,” Swingle said, “within the next two weeks.”
Swingle warned that the city’s property taxes and gross receipt taxes produce very little revenue—a situation that will have to change, he said, despite “a large segment of the community not wanting to increase revenue.”
Swingle did not identify the means by which to increase revenue. He had stated earlier that the city already collects 8.75 cents per dollar in GRT, a rate that, he had noted, is among the highest in the state. The state’s GRT contribution to city coffers is about $1.5 million a year, Swingle said, which is nearly equivalent to the city’s yearly local GRT revenue.
TRANSFORMER REPAIR MORE EXPENSIVE THAN ESTIMATED
The city had expected to pay nearly $33,000 to fix one of the city’s two transformers, Swingle reported. “But the company that was supposed to do the work went to Colorado at the eleventh hour,” Swingle said, forcing the city to scramble to find another vendor to do the emergency repair.
The second company charged nearly $50,000, Swingle reported.
DUMIAK SMART METER APPEAL
The city commission heard T or C resident Rick Dumiak’s appeal of what he deemed to be the personally injurious installation of a smart meter to read his residential electricity use. Dumiak had appealed the meter’s installation to City Manager Swingle. It was denied. Then he appealed Swingle’s denial to the city commission.
Dumiak proved through correspondence with previous City Manager Morris Madrid that he only accepted the installation of a smart meter to read his residential electricity use six months ago “under duress.” He was told his power would be cut off if he did not accept the meter, Dumiak demonstrated, producing the cut-off notice at his June 23 hearing.
“Mr. Dumiak has proven the point he has been trying to fight having a smart meter from the beginning,” Commissioner Frances Luna said.
“I don’t want a smart meter, bottom line. It’s killing me,” Dumiak said.
The commissioners voted unanimously to have Dumiak’s smart meter replaced with a digital meter, since his original analog meter has been thrown away. Dumiak said it was “debatable” whether the radio-frequency transmissions from the digital meter are harmless, but accepted the decision without further comment.
The issue of whether Dumiak and others refusing smart meters will have to pay a monthly trip and service fee of $50 to have their digital or analog meters read manually will be determined at the next city commission meeting, Swingle said. He and City Attorney Jaime (Jay) Rubin spoke with Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp on June 22 about Kreienkamp’s determination that the city commission had violated the Open Meetings Act when voting to institute the $50 fee. Rubin’s arguments did not sway the assistant attorney general, who did not change his earlier ruling, Swingle said.
A discussion of how to correct the OMA violations will be on the commission’s next meeting agenda.
CAPITAL PROJECTS PUBLIC HEARING
The first of two public hearings were held on the city’s five-year 2022-2027 Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan that must be updated every year, according to state law.
The ICIP informs planning and financing by state agencies and the state legislature.
Assistant City Manager Traci Alvarez led the public hearing, for which no list or description of last year’s projects was provided. When Sophie Peron asked for last year’s ICIP list, Alvarez said: “It can be found on the DFA website.”
Citizens taking the time and trouble to consult the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration website would not find an update on which of T or C’s previously prioritized ICIP projects may have been funded since last year, nor did Alvarez provide one at the meeting.
Resident Ariel Dougherty gave the only public input, suggesting that the electric yard and buildings across the street from Ralph Edwards Park be converted to a community center. She suggested park patrons using the park could park in the electric yard. This would allow the city to remove the parking lot recently constructed within Ralph Edwards Park next to the river, runoff from which poses a water pollution hazard.
The July 26, 2020, massive rain that dropped about five inches in an hour caused the Cantrell Dam “to breach, at least in one location,” Swingle said, flooding parts of Williamsburg and the southwestern end of T or C.
The city has been responsible for the dam’s maintenance since 2003, according to correspondence Swingle said he had unearthed from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, confirming the city’s responsibility. Swingle could not find documents on the dam’s original construction or purpose, he said.
A grant/loan to design a renovation of the dam was sought from the water trust board of the New Mexico Finance Authority with the approval of the T or C city commission in September 2020.
Assistant City Manager Traci Alvarez asked the commission to approve the receipt of the grant/loan, which has been awarded by NMFA. The grant is for$450,000. The loan portion is $300,000, to be paid back over 20 years at 0 percent interest, along with .25 percent annual fee to cover NMFA administration costs. The city must also pay a $75,000 cash match to receive the grant/loan.
“It will cost several million dollars to rehabilitate the dam,” Swingle said. “This will just pay for the design costs.”
“We can’t afford not to do it,” he concluded, referring to the danger and damage caused by the dam’s breaching during the July flood event.
“Where are we going to get the money for the loan?” Commissioner Luna asked. Swingle suggested the city use part of the $1.4 million it had received from the federal government to aid in recovering from the pandemic. Although he did not mention the source of the federal dollars, he was probably referring to American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The commission approved the grant/loan unanimously.
NOVEMBER ELECTION RESOLUTION
City Clerk Angela Torres reminded the commissioners that the commission had approved a resolution in July 2020 to have the Sierra County Clerk run municipal elections. The switchover changed the election calendar. The city used to hold local elections in March, but now they will be held in November—on November 2 this year.
An election resolution, to be delivered to county clerk by June 24, was unanimously approved by the commission.
It stated that three commission seats will be open, including that held by Commissioner Luna, who was appointed by her fellow commissioners last September to fill Brendan Tolley’s seat. (Tolley resigned for health reasons in August 2020.) The person elected to the seat this November will finish out the final two years of Tolley’s four-year term.
Seats held by Mayor Sandra Whitehead and Commissioner Paul Baca are also up for election. Each is a four-year position.
Those interested in running must declare their candidacy on Aug. 24 at the county clerk’s office, Torres said. Write-in candidates may declare their candidacy on Aug. 31.
PURCHASES OVER $20,000
Last month the commissioners approved a resolution requiring that purchases or commitments costing more than $20,000, including contracts, memorandums of understanding and joint powers agreements, come before the commission for approval.
Swingle presented 33 items totaling nearly $6.6 million that were included in the draft 2021-2022 budget, also approved last month. He said he wanted to make sure the commission was “still comfortable” with the approved purchases.
The commissioners unanimously approved the purchases with no discussion.
THREATENED AND PENDING LITIGATION
The commission went into closed executive session to discuss possible or current litigation involving T or C law enforcement officers Erica Baker and Michael Lanford “pursuant to 10-15-1(H.7).” According to Clerk Torres, the commission took no action on that item in the open session following the closed session.