Sandoval Signpost

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Jack Torres takes oath of office

Standing with his family, Jack Torres, the newly elected Town of Bernalillo Mayor, takes the oath of office.

Jack Torres elected Mayor of Bernalillo

—Ty Belknap, Signpost

Jack Torres was elected Mayor of the Town of Bernalillo with a landslide victory in the March 2 municipal election. He defeated his closest competitor, Eddie Torres III, by over three hundred votes, and he unseated incumbent mayor Patricia Chavez by over five hundred votes. The two contested town council seats were filled by incumbent Santiago Montoya and former council member Dale Prairie.

In an interview with the Signpost, Torres expressed his gratitude to voters and credited his campaign committee and well-organized volunteers who telephoned residents and campaigned door-to-door. He said that the 42 percent (as opposed to 25 percent in Albuquerque and 11 percent in Rio Rancho) voter turnout showed that people in Bernalillo really care about the town. “People knew me as a good candidate with a solid business background and they knew I would be available to handle the issues,” he said. ‘They were worried about the town because of the water issues. After the financial issues that came up last year, they were worried about how money was being spent at town hall.”

Torres was born and raised in Bernalillo. After graduating from Harvard University, he opened T & T Supermart and worked there for twenty-six years, recently retiring to concentrate on public service. He plans to finish his term as Chairman of the Bernalillo School Board and is also a member of the Eastern Sandoval County Flood Control Authority. The Torres family has a long tradition of public service in Bernalillo. His father Hilario “Lalo” Torres was mayor from 1963 to 1970 and from 1972 to 1982.

His uncle George Abousleman was mayor from 1958 to 1962 and his cousin Ron Abousleman was mayor from 1986 to 1990.

Torres said he has worked full-time during his hectic first two weeks of office “getting educated about how town government works and up to speed on the most pressing issues.” Although the office of mayor is unpaid, Torres says that he has quickly come to realize that it is a full-time job.

He has been meeting with state officials and engineers trying to work out corrective action for two recent violations of arsenic levels that pose potential health risks. The town had planned to extend its arsenic treatment system to all of its wells, but the treatment adds aluminum hydroxide sludge to drinking water and does not appear to do a very good job of lowering arsenic levels. (See March 2010 Signpost,) Torres said, “The town is also looking at the problem from a legal standpoint to determine commitments and options.”

The ongoing street upgrades have also been somewhat unsatisfactory. Torres said that there have been some “bumps” with the contractors on the Mainstreet construction and frustration over “disjointed projects,” such as unfinished sidewalks. He has been working with town staff, contractors, and the Department of Transportation to come to an understanding of contractual obligations and expectations. Torres said that he is not opposed to Phase Two of the Mainstreet Townscape plan which will come before the town council at a later date.

Controversial high-density residential developments, such as the Piedra Lisa Townhouses, are still not close to breaking ground. They have been delayed by litigation and lack of consensus among the town council and the Planning and Zoning Commission. Torres plans to organize strategic workshops and training sessions to help town staff and officials understand how development ordinances should be legally used and enforced, and to change ordinances as necessary.

When asked specific questions relating to town staff, Torres responded, “Why don’t you ask them?” This response was unheard of during the past administration that sometimes forbade staff to speak directly to the public and especially to the media. Torres hopes to change “the tone and culture of town government” that has often been unresponsive and lacking in transparency when dealing with the public, other departments, and elected officials. He is asking town staff to prepare bi-weekly status reports for documentation and to keep the council informed.

Torres presented his specific recommendations to concerning staff positions including police chief, fire chief, town administrator, town clerk, and town treasurer on March 22. (See Water issues dominate Bernalillo Town Council.)


Expectant c. David Cramer

“Expectant”: One of David Cramer’s latest prize winning photographs. This was, “one of my favorite photos of our Placitas wild horses,” said David.

David CramerCommunity mourns the loss of a fellow artist and wildlife activist

—Keiko Ohnuma

Placitans were shocked and saddened to learn of the death of one of the community’s best-loved artists, David Cramer, on Thursday, March 25, of heart failure.

Cramer, best known for his stunning photography of wild horses, was shooting in the field for a photo workshop when he succumbed to the same early death he often commented on in his father and grandfather. He was 58 years old.

Calls and emails came pouring in to The Signpost office the following day.

After less than a decade in the area, Cramer had amassed a huge following of friends and admirers, not only for his nature photography but also for his passionate work on behalf of wildlife preservation and his cheerful enthusiasm for life.

 “David was the happiest, kindest person I know,” said his friend Laura Robbins, a fellow artist and wildlife activist. “He was just good. He enjoyed his life. One time he said about his photography—which he had such great success at—‘You know I just enjoy it so much; if it weren’t fun I wouldn’t be doing it.’”

A psychologist in Austin, Texas, for nearly three decades, Cramer’s life took a turn in the late 1990s after he met Placitas psychiatrist Avi Kreichman, who would become his life partner. An article in The Signpost from September 2004 quotes him as saying of the move, in reference to his family history, “I didn’t want to put off the outdoors until it was too late.”

Photography had been a lifelong hobby, but when he came to New Mexico it turned serious, and he quickly progressed from making greeting cards to winning numerous awards. His photos of wildlife in motion show a keen sensitivity to the miracle of life in its myriad forms, from cranes to wild horses. Animals seem to reveal their true nature to his lens, in seeming appreciation for his appreciation. Above all, his photos of the wild mustangs capture the animals’ majesty and dignity in what is clearly also a cry for their protection.

 “You can see from his blog he was very conscientious about stewardship, and he is famously known for being a horse advocate,” said Patience O’Dowd, co-founder of the Wild Horse Observers Association of Placitas, with which Cramer was actively involved.

His recent talks at Albuquerque Open Space in conjunction with his show “Placitas: A Place for Wild Horses” were standing-room-only, O’Dowd noted. He also offered well-attended outdoor photography workshops several times a year.

Plans for memorial services had not been set at press time. But among his upcoming exhibits was a show in April at the Rockin’ R Gallery in Placitas, which Gary Roller says will now serve as a memorial tribute.

It would surprise no one to see all the wild animals attend.


ESCAFCA defers tax relief

—Orin Safier and Ty Belknap

The Eastern Sandoval County Flood Control Authority Board of Directors held a special workshop on January 26 to discuss the position ESCAFCA will take on seeking a tax reduction to deal with the public relations disaster that brought the controversial agency into existence in the first place. The cost to taxpayers in the Bernalillo/Placitas/Algodones area was misrepresented prior to the November 2008 election when the ESCAFCA tax levy was narrowly approved by voters.

When property owners received their property tax bills in November of 2009, many realized for the first time that ESCAFCA was going to cost them a lot more than expected. ESCAFCA publicized a tax levy of $67 per $100,000 appraised value, but the tax that appeared on 2009 property tax bills was $115 per $100,000. Some taxpayers were shocked, not only because of the discrepancy, but also because there was no mention at all of costs on the question as it appeared on the ballot. The ESCAFCA tax, combined with the questionable three-percent increases in appraised property value and a tax levy for two hospitals in Rio Rancho, resulted in an increase of a whopping fifty percent over 2008 property taxes.

A petition signed by over 1,500 residents protesting the tax had little effect. Organized opposition to ESCAFCA now seems to have faded away.

During the regular February meeting of ESCAFCA held at the Placitas Community Center, the board finalized the decision made at the January 26 Special Meeting to defer discussion of the tax issue until 2011.

The only dissent on the board was member Dan Dennison, who favored moving immediately to explore refinancing of the present debt with the aim of lowering taxes in the coming year. The board’s decision indicates a majority decision to spend the tax dollars while assuming that taxpayers will forget the questionable way in which the vote on the ESCAFCA tax was handled. 

Dennison’s concern is that the citizens will not forget, especially when faced with new tax bills for the same or greater amounts as the previous year, and consequently will vote against any future bond issues for ESCAFCA.  This may also incline voters to reject any other types of bond issues the county proposes in the future.

At the February meeting, there was also discussion of the status of projects ESCAFCA has proposed. Administrator Larry Blair reported talks with Sandoval County officials regarding proposed joint projects with the county. He was told that there simply is no money in this year’s county budget for those projects. Blair was told to ask again when the new fiscal year begins in July, but there is no reason to suppose the fiscal situation will significantly change then. This means that for a number of its most important proposed projects ESCAFCA lacks an effective partnership.

The disconnect between ESCAFCA and Sandoval County is even more apparent in the absence of inter-agency agreements between the two entities, though these have been discussed for well over a year. Only if such agreements were in place could ESCAFCA effectively act to inspect and regulate development in the east county. Nothing in the discussion at the February meeting led the public to be confident that these agreements would be in place any time in the near future. Since ESCAFCA was largely created, with the strong endorsement of the county, to take over from the county the inspection and regulation of development as regards drainage, the present rationale for ESCAFCA’s existence is unclear.

Before many of the policies can be implemented, there will have to be inter-agency agreements in place with the County, the Town of Bernalillo, San Antonio Las Huertas Land Grant, Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District, and any other official state and federal entities with which ESCAFCA must coordinate. Many citizens are concerned that this would just add another layer of bureaucracy to what is already multiple layers of county and state agencies responsible for inspection and enforcement.

In spite of these challenges to achieving full regulatory authority, ESCAFCA  has issued a draft of proposed Drainage Policy. The Policy designates the methods by which ESCAFCA would regulate all new and existing development in its jurisdiction as regards drainage issues. 

The ESCAFCA board is seeking public comment on the drainage policy which can be viewed online when it is posted at www.escafca.com.

Opponents to ESCAFCA who found comfort in the impression that continued existence of ESCAFCA depended on surviving another referendum on the ballot in 2012 may be disapointed to discover that regardless of the vote on bond issues, ESCAFCA can continue to operate on operation mil levies that will continue to be added to property taxes indefinitely.


Water issues dominate Bernalillo Town Council meeting

—Ty Belknap, Signpost

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres presented his staff appointments and suggestions for reorganization at the March 22 meeting of the Town Council. The positions town administrator, treasurer, clerk, police chief, and fire chief are appointments by the mayor which must be approved by a majority vote of the council.

The council voted unanimously to retain Treasurer Juan Torres and Clerk Ida Fierro. Mayor Torres did not reappoint fire chief John Estrada, and the council unanimously agreed to an interim fire chief position for  Michael Carroll. Shortly after taking office the prevous week, Torres had terminated acting Town Administrator Santiago Chavez who took the position after Stephen Jerge resigned following last spring’s spending scandal. The council agreed to begin advertising immediately to fill the position.

Torres’s vote to hire former Bernalillo police chief Bill Reylea on an interim basis broke a split council vote. There was no discussion about why current Chief Fred Radosevich, who has served as chief since 2004, was not reappointed. Relyea, who served as chief from 1998 to 2003, was currently retired and not interested in a permanent job as chief. The council agreed to begin advertising the position immediately while Relyea helped with the transition. (Two days later, Relyea resigned due to stress-related health problems.)

The council also voted unanimously to retain Councilor Marian Jaramillo as Mayor Pro Tem, and to retain all members of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

They approved one-year contracts for professional engineering and architectural retainer services. Mayor Torres commented that fees paid to professionals over the last couple of years were entirely too high and unacceptable.

After these important council actions, water issues dominated the remainder of the meeting. Engineer Bob Paulette reported on the progress of Wilson and Company in their efforts over the past two weeks to review the operation, maintainance, and performance of Water Wells Three and Four—especially concerning the arsenic treatment system which came under fire over the last several months. The locally-made $4.9 million electro-flocculation system purchased during the previous administration has failed on two occasions this year to reduce arsenic levels to acceptable levels, resulting in violations notices from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). It also causes a gooey sludge of aluminum hydroxide which clogs home water filters and is consumed in drinking water.

Paulette told the council that his company is trying to discover the problem and to make the system work better by augmenting or replacing the electro-flocculation system by adding ferrite chloride to the water supply. This is a more commonly used method of arsenic mitigation that was suggested by engineers before the town awarded a no-bid contract to ARS-USA for the electro-flocculation system that, according to Paulette, is not used anywhere but Bernalillo. The amount of ferrite chloride is being added incrementally while Wilson and Company monitors arsenic levels and checks to see if iron appears in home water filters in addition to the aluminum hydroxide sludge.

Councillor Jaramillo questioned the health risks of adding iron (from the ferrite chloride) to the drinking water. She also said that the town need answers before May 1 federal funding deadlines, so they could change the design for the system scheduled to be installed on Wells One and Two (at an additional cost of $9.2 million.) Mayor Torres said that the first priority is to get the system on Wells Three and Four working properly and not to waste money on a system that doesn’t work.

Torres then opened his newly-initiated public comment period. Residents are given three minutes to speak and are not required to sign up in advance or to identify themselves. One speaker asked if the Aluminum Hydroxide contains concentrated levels of arsenic and if it presents a health risk. Paulette admitted that he did not know the answer. Torres said that many residents had asked the same question and said that they were checking with the NMED to make sure that the sludge did not contain “super arsenic.” When asked by another resident how the water could be cleaned, Paulette responded that the entire system would have to be drained and all the tanks and pipes flushed. He said they wanted to hold off on this lengthy procedure until more testing is done.

The cost of Wilson and Company’s services are in addition to $10,000 the town pays a well services company every month to maintain its wells. Another resident asked if the town had some kind of “slush fund” to cover these costs. Mayor Torres answered that there was no slush fund and that the town had no choice other than to find funding.

Finally, Torres told the council that he would like to organize a work session with the council to discuss “strategic planning and priorities and put everything on the table.” The council unanimously agreed to schedule the session for April 7 at 6:00 p.m. at Town Council chambers.h


BPS bond election information

—Town of Bernalillo

Bernalillo Public Schools is holding a special Bond Election on April 13, 2010. All registered voters residing within the boundaries of the Bernalillo Municipal School District are allowed to vote. You do not need to be a property owner or have students attending Bernalillo Public Schools to vote. 

The $17,500,000 in General Obligation Bonds and School Capital Improvements Taxes being voted on will not increase property taxes. Reduced principal and interest payments on previously issued bonds permit new bonds to be sold without any increase in the tax rate. An affirmative vote will allow the Board of Education to authorize the bonds to be issued for the purposes of erecting, remodeling, making additions to, and furnishing school buildings, as well as purchasing or improving school grounds and purchasing computer software and hardware. As result of the voter approval in the last Bond Election, Bernalillo Public Schools was able to build two new facilities: La Escuelita Early Childhood Center and Bernalillo Elementary School.

Superintendent Vigil-Lowder said, “The funding is crucial for the maintenance and improvement of school facilities. In order to ensure that students have the best chance for reaching their full potential, it is important to ensure that their learning environment is well maintained. The District has been fortunate in the past that voters have recognized that modern technology and upgrading facilities helps improve student achievement.”

Superintendent Vigil-Lowder continued, “The bond funding has allowed us to create learning environments of which we are extremely proud. We urge voters to vote on April 13.  Among other important project needs, the funding from the bonds will allow us to renovate existing schools and build other schools in the District including Bernalillo High School, Carroll Elementary, and Santo Domingo School.” 

For more information, contact Superintendent of Bernalillo Public Schools, Barbara Vigil-Lowder at 505-867-2317 or email her at: blowder@bps.k12.nm.us. To see the polling locations as well as a list of project needs, visit www.bernalillo-schools.org.


Las Placitas Association hosts Land Commissioner forum

—Janice Saxton, Las Placitas Association

A forum featuring the candidates for Commissioner of Public Lands was held on March 10, 2010, at the Bernalillo Town Hall. All candidates were invited. Three Republican candidates—Matt Rush, Jim Jackson, and Spiro Vassilopoulos—attended as well as three Democratic candidates—Mike Anaya, Ray Powell, and Sandy Jones.

Each candidate spoke briefly describing their background, their plans for the land office, and explaining the duties of the Commissioner of Public Lands. A question-and-answer session was held for approximately ninety minutes during which each candidate answered every question asked by the audience.

One subject of great interest was the recent sale of public land by the current Republican Land Commissioner in the White Peak area. All the candidates said they did not approve of the sale. Spiro Vassilopoulos, along with most of the Democrats, stated that they would not sell public land at all. Mr. Vassilopoulos further stated that ‘the state usually loses in a sale or trade.’

Many questions were posed to the candidates ranging from control of predators using leg traps and poison bait to development of alternative energy sources on public lands to the management of the investment fund. 

Ray Powell stressed his work as a veterinarian, his knowledge of wildlife, and his previous experience as Land Commissioner in his answers to most of the questions. Matt Rush and Mike Anaya are ranchers and spoke of their love for the land and their community service experience. Sandy Jones emphasized his current experience as chair of the Public Regulatory Commission. Jim Jackson, a lawyer, recently worked for the Land Office and emphasized this experience. Spiro Vassilopoulos, an independent oil and gas developer, emphasized his knowledge of the financial aspects of the job of Commissioner of Public Lands. The audience found the discussion enlightening and Las Placitas Association hopes to sponsor future forums.

     

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