T or C takes first step toward possible sale of its electric utility

by Kathleen Sloan | November 3, 2021
5 min read
Sierra Electric Cooperative headquarters in Elephant Butte Source: Google

The Truth or Consequences City Commission approved the hiring of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to assess the advantages to customers, the city and Sierra Electric Cooperative of a sale of T or C’s electric utility to the cooperative.

City Manager Bruce Swingle made the initial approach to Sierra Electric Cooperative, a customer-owned not-for-profit utility serving rural areas of the county, as well as the city of Elephant Butte and a small portion of T or C.

SEC suggested that a cost-benefit study be conducted by NRECA, a Virginia-based organization that represents more 900 cooperative or customer-owned not-for-profit electric utilities, which supply over 40 percent of the country’s electricity, according to NRECA’s website.

SEC will pay for the study, at a cost not to exceed $24,900, according to the “NRECA Services Agreement for the Phase 1 Municipal Acquisition Review Study” document included in the T or C city commission’s Oct. 27 meeting packet.

Swingle said the study will be “a joint effort to look at what is feasible.” “This is not a commitment for the city to sell,” he added, “it is just fact-finding.”  

The study’s approval by the city commission was unanimous with no discussion preceding the vote last week. However, in an interview with the Sun on Oct. 27, City Manager Swingle forthrightly explained why he decided to pursue the possibility of selling the city-owned utility. “I do not want to be the city manager that lets the grid go down,” he said.

“The city was very close to having the grid go down” this summer, Swingle told the Sun. The city has two transformers, both about 60 years old, which is well past their predicted life span. He ordered an emergency repair to the northern transformer shortly after taking the job of city manager in the first week of May. Since then, he has sought a loan for about $1.1 million from the New Mexico Finance Authority to replace the northern transformer altogether. “Both transformers need to be replaced,” Swingle acknowledged to the Sun.

The NMFA is still reviewing the loan, Swingle reported to the city commissioners at their meeting last week.

Taking office during the 2021-2022 budget-drafting season, Swingle pointed out during the city commission’s public budget workshops that “for decades” the commissioners had allowed millions of dollars in utility fees to be transferred out of the utility funds to pay for general government operations. Good-governance practice would have used utility fees to pay for infrastructure maintenance, repair and replacement and service improvements. The largest transfers have come from the electric utility.

“There is not much of an advantage to the city to sell the electric facility,” Swingle said to the Sun, “but there is a big advantage to the customer.” As a city-owned electric utility, he explained, “we are not under the PRC [New Mexico Public Regulation Commission], which has a lot of requirements [governing ongoing maintenance and equipment replacement], and it shows.”

The Sun asked Swingle if he would consider the possible sale of the utility to other electric companies, such as PNM, New Mexico’s largest electricity provider.

“I think everybody is pretty comfortable with Sierra Electric,” Swingle responded adding that it is nearby, with service areas contiguous with T or C’s utility lines, making it the logical choice for a buyer. “If something goes wrong [with a deal with SEC], then we might open it up.”

Last April, the Sun published a story that showed how T or C’s electric utility rates compared to other city-owned electric utilities in New Mexico. The Sun also compared T or C’s rates to those of three electric cooperatives, including SEC. The Sun added PNM’s rates as a comparison, since it is the largest electric company in the state. Our research found that SEC’s per-kilowatt rate was the highest of the three cooperatives, all of whom charged more than T or C because of their costs of installing and maintaining miles of transmission lines to serve areas with less dense populations. On the other hand, PNM was able, because of economies of scale, to charge less than T or C in cities it served with populations of less than 3,000, such as Bayard, Lordsburg and Clayton.

The Sun contacted PNM to ask whether the company had ever bought a city-owned electric utility. “PNM acquired the Clayton municipal utility in 1983,” Shannon Jackson, head of PNM corporate communications, emailed on Oct. 27. “This would have been the most recent purchase of a municipal utility.”

PNM does not currently service an area contiguous with T or C. Jackson told the Sun that the closest PNM territory is Silver City.

State law 3-54-1 leaves it to a municipality’s discretion to sell public property, either privately or publicly. A city may also put the decision to sell public property to referendum. If the property is worth over $25,000, it must be sold via an ordinance, which requires public notice in a local paper and a public hearing. Such ordinances are subject to overturning by referendum.

State law further mandates that a “qualified appraiser” must be brought in to determine the value of the property to be sold if it appears to be worth more than $25,000. The appraisal must be submitted in writing to the “governing body.” If the governing body decides to sell the property for less than the appraised value, it must put in writing the reasons for doing so.

If the City of Truth or Consequences and SEC decide to move ahead with a sale, then a thorough appraisal will be done, Swingle told the city commission last week.

If the city were to sell the electric utility at an advantageous price, Swingle said, the money would go into the General Fund. The city could then pay for its government activities with the cash for some time, he said, while it seeks another source of revenue to replace the millions that are routinely transferred each fiscal year out of the utility funds.

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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