Third day on the job, Swingle brings transparency and reality to T or C’s budgeting process

by Kathleen Sloan | May 10, 2021
11 min read
Source: Corporate Finance Institute

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part examination of the budgeting process underway in the City of Truth or Consequences. In addition to contending with a $1.6 million deficit in the fiscal year 2021-2022 draft budget, new city manager Bruce Swingle informed the city commissioners that they must play a lead role in identifying departmental spending priorities and cuts and devising a plan within two years to end the practice of balancing the budget with transfers from utility fees.

The city commission’s budget deliberations began at an all-day public session on Wednesday, May 5 at which department heads presented their budget requests. The session addressed both known needs and bombshell revelations, including the news that the electric department does not have the resources to immediately replace a non-functioning transformer, raising the possibility of local brownouts this summer. The city subsequently announced that even repair parts could not be obtained and installed until June 15 and asked citizens to conserve energy.

Bruce Swingle righted much of what is wrong with the governance of Truth or Consequences on his third day as city manager. Facing the need for massive cuts that had already become evident to him after 48 hours on the job, Swingle insisted, with utmost diplomacy, that it was the commission’s job to make the “policy decisions” that would determine what was to be cut, while his was to “execute policy.”

“The budget is the most important policy decision you make throughout the year,” Swingle told the city commissioners, hitting the ball firmly into their court.

Last year, former City Manager Morris Madrid made all department budget decisions, which the city commission rubber-stamped without question.

The fiscal year 2021-2022 budget session on May 5 lasted all day, as department head after department head came to the microphone in the commission chambers to state the case for line-item requests. The city commissioners asked questions and decided if the item and/or the amount requested were to be reduced, eliminated or remain intact.

Frances Luna, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the commission after the passage of the budget for this fiscal year, was, by far, the most engaged of the five commissioners. The others offered little direction, seemingly content to let Luna provide the leadership Swingle had requested.

Swingle started the budget session by praising staff. “I’m overwhelmingly impressed with the directors” with whom he had met with the day before. It soon became apparent from these discussions, he said, that the “budget started with a $1.6 million deficit.”

Together, he and staff had slashed about 10 percent from each department’s proposed budget, identifying cuts that didn’t encroach on the commission’s policy-making authority. Any new positions proposed by a department director were eliminated, Swingle said.

However, additional cuts would be necessary. As the May 5 session proceeded, the list of unbudgeted but needed expenditures grew. Items that were not included in the draft budget, but that will have to be paid in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2022, included these bombshell revelations:

• The electric department has to make a “very costly” purchase, Swingle said. Later in the session, Electric Department Director Bo Easley announced that a new transformer with an estimated cost of $1 million is urgently needed.

• There are “serious issues with water wells,” Swingle said, confirming investigative reporting by the Sun (see Related stories below). Swingle did not provide a cost estimate.

• The city owes the IRS $100,000.

• The city owes Sierra Vista Hospital $173,000, Swingle said. Later in the meeting, Luna explained the reimbursement was for medical care “for prisoners.”

• The city pool is leaking 34,000 gallons per week, Swingle said, necessitating immediate repairs at a cost of about $37,000 “that will last for about two years,” according to Pool Manager Kyle Blacklock.

• The city “owes” the police department $284,000 because gross receipts tax revenue dedicated to the department was used to build the animal shelter.

Here follows department summaries of the budgeting and policy issues that were discussed on May 5. Four major city departments will be included in Part 1 of the Sun’s coverage. Parts 2 and 3, to be posted later this week, will cover other departments whose budgetary issues became a focus for discussion.


A presentation on the electric department was first on the agenda. Department Director Bo Easley dropped the bombshell that the “northern transformer” had been “lost.” Easley did not explain if the transformer is located on the north side of the city or if it serves the northern section of town. “We’re running the whole town on the southern transformer,” he reported. Both transformers were installed “in the 1960s and ‘70s, and if you get 50 years out of them, you’re doing good,” he explained.

The dimensions of the problem became somewhat clearer three days later, on May 8, when the city posted on its public information Facebook page that the tap changer, which regulates output voltage, “has been lost off” the northern transformer, rendering it inoperable. The “parts have been ordered,” and the work will be done on June 15, the post states. Until then, the city requests electric customers to conserve electricity, especially between the hours of 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. “until the necessary repairs have been made.”

The city did not clarify whether this emergency work will obviate the replacement of the northern transformer altogether or is a stop-gap repair that will increase the cost of solving this problem.

Easley initially stated during his presentation that the cost to replace the northern transformer was an estimated $1.5 million. After questioning by Luna, he reduced his cost estimate to $1 million.

As for how to pay for a new transformer, Easley noted that the city had submitted a grant request to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and “we’re waiting to see if we get it,” he explained.

In the interim, Easley said, seasonal increases in the use of air conditioning, which are fast approaching, will be “very hard” on the sole, southern transformer. “We’ve installed fans to cool the transformer,” he said.

For the third time in as many months, Luna observed: “We are an electric utility that runs a municipality.” She noted that this concept that had been “drilled into me” by the city commissioners with whom she had served during her first stint as a commissioner 10 years ago.

Swingle tactfully corrected Luna’s misperception that using utility funds to run the city is good governance. He pointed out that the preliminary 2021-2022 budget calls for $1.4 million to be transferred from the electric department fund into the General Fund. The city’s historic practice of depleting utility funds to make up general operating deficits is “leaving him [Easley] with fumes.”

“They [the electric department] have given and given and given. He [Easley] doesn’t have the money to address this problem,” Swingle said. Waiting on a grant to pay for an urgent replacement is “symptomatic” [of bad management practice].

“We’ve got to stop that,” the new city manager informed the commissioners.  “It’s too late this year. But in two years we will have a plan so we are not transferring money out of utilities,” Swingle said.

Luna did not acknowledge that the city has been misusing utility revenue. All she said was: “We need $3 million today.” But this response indicates she had made a lightning-quick pivot, acceding to Swingle’s plan to stop using transfers to balance the budget.

By adding the $1.6 million budget deficit that Swingle had announced at the beginning of the meeting to the proposed $1.4 million transfer from the electric department to arrive at her $3 million figure, Luna signaled her agreement that the electric fund should not be raided in order to bolster the General Fund this year. “We have to cut,” she said.

Commissioner Randall Aragon, who shares legal responsibility with his fellow commissioners for prudent stewardship of the public coffers, spoke next. His comments indicated that he had not familiarized himself with department expenditures, nor determined which were efficacious or wasteful. Suggesting instead that the commission’s fiscal oversight duties be delegated to staff, he recommended that the same percentage be cut from each department, with department heads making the decision as to priorities. “We don’t know what they need,” Aragon said.

“That’s what we did yesterday [cut 10 percent from department budgets]. Swingle said. He then diplomatically informed Aragon that it is the commissioners’ job to become conversant with every aspect of the city’s operation and budget.  “We cut as much as we could without getting into policy; and that’s your responsibility,” Swingle said. “Staff can’t do that.”

Luna had no problem exercising her authority when it came to Easley’s $150,000 line item for electric-vehicle charging stations.

Easley and Madrid had approved the project behind closed doors months before, issuing a request for proposals to install four low-power charging stations downtown that would require eight to 10 hours of charging time to “refuel” an electric car. When the project came before the city commission last month, it was for discussion, not formal approval. No market study or cost-benefit analysis was presented to the commission demonstrating that municipally owned charging stations would be money-making operations, rather than a drain on revenues from T or C utility customers’ fees.

During their discussion of the project’s merits (see Related stories below for the Sun’s coverage), the city commissioners had decided that neither locals nor tourists would frequent a low-power station. In response, Easley had issued another RFP, this one to construct high-power charging stations, he announced to the commissioners during his budget presentation. The project’s cost had risen from $100,000 to $150,000.  

Although still lacking a cost analysis and formal city commission approval, the project’s inclusion in the budget at the higher cost won Commissioner Luna’s favor. “We need to keep investing in city projects that make us money,” she argued without citing supporting evidence.

None of the other city commissioners commented, and funding for the project remained in the budget.

August 2019 the city commission green-lighted a similarly un-vetted project to replace the analog electric meter readers of city electric utility customers with smart meters. The commissioners passed a motion to purchase the new meters relying solely on then City Manager Morris Madrid’s verbal assessment the cost would be “about $1 million.” In retrospect, it appears that money should have been spent on replacing the 60-year-old northern transformer, a much more urgent need.


Jesse Cole, director of the water and wastewater departments, included among his 2021-2022 capital projects requests the construction of a new building to house both the water and wastewater departments he heads. There was nothing in Cole’s proposed budget or oral presentation that addressed the well-water problems Swingle mentioned at the beginning of the budgeting session. Remaining silent, the commissioners took up neither Swingle’s warning nor Cole’s request. 

The day before, in discussions with Swingle, Cole had agreed to cut a $40,000 line item designated to pay outside workers to fix water leaks. Cole’s requested funding for the equivalent of 1.5 additional positions was also cut.

The extra positions and outside labor will not be needed, Cole postulated, because, “We are not anticipating a lot of leaks this year,” explaining that the system’s “weak spots were exposed” by the numerous leaks that the water department had repaired during this fiscal year.


Cole’s request that wastewater employees be given a raise “based on merit” spurred Luna to recommend that all requested salary and wage increases be taken out of the budget, to be re-considered in December, the middle of the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Luna went on to express her disapproval of the merit-based system for awarding raises initiated by Madrid. “It is hard to do on merit,” she observed. “There is no rhyme or reason to the pay scale we have now. It leads to awarding favorites and we are accused of being unfair.”

None of the other commissioners commented on the proposed moratorium on raises or on whether the merit-raise system instituted without city commission approval should be revamped.

Swingle asked how raises had been handled “historically.” “It wasn’t consistent,” City Clerk Angela Torres said.

“If the expectation is there [for a raise], we don’t want to harm employees if we don’t have to,” Swingle said.

“No, there were some years when we couldn’t do it,” Mayor Sandra Whitehead said.

The ensuing silence indicated that Luna’s policy recommendations would stand.


Swingle informed the commissioners that, as he had not met with Solid Waste Director Andy Alvarez the day before, no prior cuts had been made to that department’s proposed budget.

Although solid waste had just purchased a new trash truck budgeted at $250,000 in fiscal 2020-2021, Alvarez asked the commissioners to approve a 2021-2022 line item for $217,000 to enable the purchase of another new trash truck. He pointed out that each waste truck must “carry 8,000 to 12,000 pounds of trash,” giving them a short shelf life of “three to five years.”

Nevertheless, the department head agreed to cut the truck purchase from his budget after Luna reminded him: “We are $2.6 million in deficit.” Evidently, the commissioner had been keeping a running tally of cuts made to reduce her estimation that next year’s budget was $3 million in the red.

Alvarez’s request for a new $115,000 backhoe survived Luna’s questioning about its necessity. The department uses a backhoe to pack trash into trucks that carry it to the landfill used by the city near Las Cruces. The existing backhoe has reached the point where it can no longer be repaired, Alvarez explained, and must be replaced. His explanation was accepted.

Part 2 of the Sun’s coverage of T or C’s budgeting deliberations will be posted on Wednesday.

CORRECTION: This story has been changed to reflect the number of gallons the municipal pool is leaking each week, not each day, as erroneously stated in the original version.

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.


T or C water department director mum on possibly major problems with city’s well field
by Kathleen Sloan | February 25, 2021

The director's candid remark about the need for a new well to be built on the northside of town to provide "redundancy" launched a Sun...

City of T or C plans to build electric vehicle charging stations, apparently without market study or cost-benefit analysis
by Kathleen Sloan | April 1, 2021

The city will soon enter the electric vehicle charging business, as can be surmised from a publicly unvetted “Request for Proposals” advertised in the Sierra...

2 thoughts on “Third day on the job, Swingle brings transparency and reality to T or C’s budgeting process”

  1. It is nice to see there finally seems to be an adult in charge in our city. Great article!

  2. Good read. Raises a lot of questions about the fiscal responsibility of our elected officials, department heads and managers. Why are department heads deciding when a piece of equipment needs to be replaced? The city does not have an equipment maintenance dept? I see a whole lot of abuse of equipment, vehicles and power with this setup the city uses now. Having run maintenance programs in the past, I see where the city could start saving money—now, and in the future. A total lack of accountability.

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