The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Sign staying up or coming down? McCoy takes action on “Placitas County.”

Sign staying up or coming down? McCoy takes action on “Placitas County.”

Rep. McCoy will ask Legislature for Placitas County referendum, economic study

Bill Diven

Backers of a referendum on creating Placitas County are taking their efforts to Santa Fe and the state Legislature. There state Rep. Kathy McCoy plans to introduce a bill authorizing a nonbinding referendum on whether to split off southeastern Sandoval County under its own government. The Cedar Crest Republican, whose district includes Placitas and La Madera, said she also would seek a state study of the potential finances of the new county.

As proposed by Charles Mellon of Placitas, the county would use I-25 as its western and northern boundary to slice off the southeast corner of Sandoval County. The area, with a population of about six thousand, includes Placitas, La Madera, a small corner of Bernalillo, and portions of Sandia, Santa Ana, and San Felipe pueblos.

“We're going to find out if this is a legitimate thing to do,” McCoy said. “I'd like to see this put to bed one way or the other.

“This has been simmering a long time.”

The question of conducting a financial study came up during the January 20 county commission meeting as Mellon and his critics argued over how a new county would be financed. Commissioners dismissed Mellon's proposal for a referendum last year after a quick county study suggested sales and property taxes couldn't support a new government.

This time commissioners rejected the proposal after county attorney David Mathews said state law doesn't allow that kind of referendum unless the Legislature approves it.

Mellon called the financial argument a myth and said the proposed county would have a property valuation of $232 million, ranking it twenty-first among thirty-four counties. Placitas-area residents are 6 percent of the county population but provide 10 percent of county sales taxes and 15 percent of property taxes, according to Mellon's figures.

He also estimated the new county could begin operating with a $4.5 annual budget without raising taxes.

Another myth Mellon addressed is that his goal is to create a Republican county. While he has run for office as a “Libertarian-leaning Republican,” voters in the proposed county in the last election favored John Kerry over George Bush 56 to 44 percent, he said.

Orville McAllister, owner of the Homestead Village shopping center, said Placitas already receives adequate service from the existing county. The center is the largest improved property in Placitas, with The Merc grocery store the largest employer, and McAllister said the tax base isn't there to support a new county.

“My take looking at the budget is that Placitas County is a financial disaster,” he told commissioners. “If this goes further, it's imperative we have an unbiased analysis of the cost.”

Gross-receipts tax collection at The Merc are down 64 percent since the state lifted the sales tax on most foods, added John McAllister.

McCoy said she welcomes comments on Placitas County and other issues by e-mail at (please include a mailing address) or by contacting her legislative office at (505) 986-4214 or Room 201B, State Capitol, Santa Fe, NM 87501.


Renovate Piedra Lisa Dam?

A newly completed Corps of Engineers study estimates it will take as much as $2 million to renovate the Piedra Lisa dam in near I-25 at Exit 242 and east of Bernalillo.

The dam, built in 1955 after storm runoff flooded Bernalillo, is located immediately south of NM 165 about a quarter mile east of I-25. While the dam is structurally sound, the Corps and engineering consultants say the renovation will improve drainage channels and extend the dam life by twenty years.

While federal and state funds will cover much of the costs, the three local entities responsible for the dam—Sandoval County, the town of Bernalillo and the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District–each must come up with $70,000 as its share of the project. The town already has recommended that it and Coronado approach the legislature for the money; the county commission is scheduled to discuss its options at its February 3 meeting.


Village Academy Charter School getting ready to accept students

Margo DeMello

On November 22, Bernalillo Public Schools approved the Village Academy Charter School, a new K-8 charter school proposed by a number of Placitas residents seeking an alternative to Placitas Elementary School as well as a way to keep their students in the community beyond the fifth grade.

Since that time, the newly formed governance council, a group of seven local residents, has begun holding bi-monthly meetings, forming committees, choosing curriculum, and seeking a location or locations to hold the new school. Until a permanent spot is chosen (the facilities committee is looking at acquiring BLM or Forest Service land), the school, which expects to be open with approximately 100 students this fall, will be held at the current administrative office in the Placitas Trails subdivision.

Charter schools like VACS are publicly funded schools that allow greater flexibility than traditional public schools, have a greater degree of parent involvement, are allowed to choose their own curriculum and teachers, and are responsible for their own budget.  In return for a substantial amount of autonomy, it is expected that charter schools show greater levels of student achievement.

The VACS governing council has chosen "core knowledge" (a grade-by-grade foundation of solid, specific, and shared knowledge), potentially to be combined with "dual language immersion" (providing instruction in both English and Spanish throughout the day), as the curriculum for the school to follow, and plans to maintain very high academic standards at the school.

While charter-school advocates maintain that charter schools are a necessary alternative to often poorly performing public schools, they are not without controversy.

Advocates point to a number of recent state and federal studies that show that charter school students are performing at the same level, or a slightly higher level, than public school students; given the short time that charter schools have been in existence (just thirteen years), and the fact that many charters have a higher number of low-income or minority students, proponents say that this demonstrates the movement's success.

Opponents of charter schools, however, point to other studies that show that charter-school students are not progressing as quickly as regular students. They further assert that the research indicating that regular and charter students are performing at the same level proves that charter schools do not outperform regular public schools (even the lowest performing), contrary to the claims of the charter-school movement. 

Critics are also concerned about the lack of accountability in many states for charter schools, and have pointed out that of the dozens of charter schools that have been forcibly closed in recent years, most have been shut down due to financial mismanagement, not poor performance. The question for many is how accountable are these schools in terms of students' education, and what role, if any, should the state play in regulating them?

New Mexico, with forty-three existing and thirteen newly approved charter schools, has relatively strict requirements for charter schools to follow, including a provision that schools submit annual reports and that the state can terminate a charter based on fiscal mismanagement or lack of student progress; on the other hand, no reporting is required for the state legislature.  Of course, regular public schools in New Mexico are hardly accountable either, since schools with poor student achievement are not at risk of closure by the state.

Some critics, finally, feel that charter schools are just another way for elitists to remove the government from education, grabbing federal and state dollars for their own students and excluding everyone else. New Mexico charter schools, however, must be open to all students; VACS plans to invite students from Placitas, Bernalillo, and the surrounding pueblos to apply through open enrollment (until capacity is reached; after that time, students will be chosen by lottery).

Open enrollment notwithstanding, there is a very real chance that funding for local schools will be impacted by the charter school. The BAPS committee that approved Village Academy's application was told that VACS would recruit outside of the district. According to Anna Torres, executive director for Elementary Education for Bernalillo Public Schools, if the school does recruit students who are current enrolled at Placitas Elementary or one of the Bernalillo schools—which appears likely—then funding for those schools will be negatively impacted. Torres also pointed out that the recently renovated Placitas Elementary is an excellent school (indeed, it ranks well above state average based on Terra Nova test scores), but the local schools' rankings have no impact on whether a charter school's application is approved.

Village Academy is facing another local controversy as well. Because many neighbors recently found out that the initial location of the school is set to be in Placitas Trails (in a building already zoned light commercial), representatives of the local home owners’ association registered their concerns about the impact of the school at the January 19 Council meeting. Concerns included increased traffic, the presence of diesel buses, bright lights, safety issues on the Highway 165-Doorco intersection, overloading the shared well and the septic system, and more.  At the time of this writing, the VACS governance council plans to work closely with Placitas Trails neighbors to come up with an agreement that will be acceptable to everyone. In the meantime, the council has already filed a conditional-use-permit application in order to get approval to use the site as a school.

Parents and neighbors who are interested in learning more about Village Academy Charter School or participating in its development are invited to attend the public meetings of the governance council, held at 6:00 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 45 Dusty Trail Road in Placitas.


Liquor-license denial overturned, appealed

Bill Diven

A state official has overturned the Bernalillo Town Council denial of a liquor license for a convenience store in the south part of town.

State Alcohol and Gaming Division director Gary Tomada ruled the town failed to show the license and location would pose a threat to public health and safety. Town administrator Lester Swindle said the town will appeal Tomada's January 12 decision.

The license, currently held by Giant Four Corners, would be transferred from a Giant station on U.S. 550 to Ever-Ready Oil Company, a Chevron dealer and the new owner of Ashley's Corner Store at Avenida Bernalillo and Camino del Pueblo.

Councilors expressed concerns about security, loitering, and shoplifting and denied the license transfer despite promises from Ever-Ready officials to hire a security company to visit the property regularly. The company also said it would ban the sale of fortified wine, prohibit consumption on the premises, and place smaller liquor bottles out of reach of would-be shoplifters.


County times

Sandoval County commissioners are pushing regular 3:00 p.m. meetings back three hours, at least for the next few months.

All regular commission meetings now will begin at 6 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays each month.

Commissioners agreed to revisit the issue in May and possibly revert to the old schedule in June.

Afternoon meetings originally were adopted in part to accommodate former commissioner Elizabeth Johnson, who faced a 130-mile round-trip drive from her home in Cuba.


New technology may provide cheap solution for Bernalillo arsenic

Bill Diven

Bernalillo has an expensive water problem, and a Placitas company thinks it may have a cheaper solution.

So the two are launching a test project to see if naturally occurring arsenic can be removed from groundwater entering the distribution system. If it works, it could save the town millions of dollars in meeting new national drinking-water standards and removing chemicals from wastewater flowing into the Rio Grande.

“It's very revolutionary,” Norbert Barcena of Placitas-based ARS USA told town councilors. The technology has been used successfully on other applications, but Bernalillo would be its first use with arsenic, he said.

Barcena said his company bought the U.S. license for the German technology three years ago and has invested $500,000 so far, including a small test project recently completed in Bernalillo. That project, however, extracted arsenic from a captive tank of groundwater.

The pilot project expected to be running by April 1 will attempt to extract arsenic from fifty thousand gallons as it passes from well to pipelines each day. If the pilot is successful, the next step up would process the town's entire water production, which exceeds one million gallons a day.

The system uses an electrolytic process in which arsenic chemically bonds to a material which then can be removed and cleaned. Methods currently in use add arsenic-collecting chemicals to the water, which then must be removed, increasing operating and cleanup costs.

Scientists working with the city of Socorro have estimated that method could cost each household there $100 a month, Barcena said.

“We can do better than that,” he added. “It's nowhere near that.”

Town administrator Lester Swindle sure hopes so as he and town councilors scramble to find the estimated $12 million or more to renovate the wastewater plant. Add $2 million for each of the town's four wells to remove arsenic by traditional methods, Swindle said.

The new federal standard for arsenic in drinking water is ten parts per billion, a reduction from the former level of fifty ppb that shocked numerous local governments when it was announced. The wastewater standard also is ten ppb for arsenic, plus reductions of other chemicals as set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in February 2004 when it issued the town's first wastewater permit in eleven years.

Immediately downstream, however, Sandia Pueblo is insisting on a even tougher arsenic limit to improve the quality of the Rio Grande passing through its lands.

Two town wells exceed fifty ppb and have been shut down. Water from the other two wells—one just under ten ppb, the other over twenty ppb—currently is being blended to keep the overall level down.

Towns have until 2006 to meet the drinking-water standard, and the EPA gave Bernalillo until February 2007 to upgrade the wastewater plant, deadlines Bernalillo is unlikely to meet despite the threat of fines. Town officials are hopeful active progress toward meeting both standards will allow extensions of the deadlines. The preliminary engineering study needed to begin the wastewater project and was delivered to town councilors on January 21.

“It's just a full-court press,” Swindle told the Signpost. “We can't do anything but get it done.”

The town already has begun raising water rates to pay for improvements and is pursuing grants and bond borrowing for wastewater renovations. In the meantime, the wastewater plant, despite it's well-known odor problem during warm weather, continues to operate efficiently and well within the standards for which it was designed, Swindle said.


County annexes last part of Corrales

Sandoval County grew a little bit with the new year as the county line shifted south to take in all of Corrales.

Bernalillo County voters approved the change in a mail-in election in December, ending a year of active effort by village leaders. The unofficial vote total was 37,944 in favor and 34,001 against.

The new part of Sandoval County, until recently a part of Bernalillo County, comprises about 10 percent of Corrales and extends to Alameda Boulevard–NM 528. Close to one thousand people live in the area.

Early on, however, promoters of the plan excluded major commercial-property front on the busy east-west thoroughfare so the effort wouldn't turn into a fight over lucrative tax receipts.

Mayor Gary Kanin pushed the idea in part to unify the community. The change also means the residents affected now can drive to Bernalillo to conduct county business instead of dealing with downtown Albuquerque.

The residents will pay lower taxes to Sandoval County, although they still must contribute their past share of some Bernalillo County taxes until existing debts are paid off.


County District 5 deals with diversity, controversy

Bill Diven

Results of the Placitas Survey will be released when the Sandoval County Commission meets on February 3, according to newly appointed commission chairman William Sapien.

Sapien declined to provide an early peek at the results but did report a “tremendous response,” perhaps two-thirds of the 2,200 surveys mailed out late last year. The survey of service and recreational needs was mailed only to Placitas property owners, with the idea that bonding to pay for projects could raise property taxes, he said.

Sapien said the survey came after years of meetings with Placitas residents and was drafted over six months by a citizen committee working with a county consultant.

During a wide-ranging interview, Sapien said he looks forward to a busy year as chairman as the commission completes earlier initiatives, launches new ones, and deals with the unforeseen. (For a list of expected priorities and additional commentary from Sapien, see the Sandoval County Line which follows this article.)

The commissioner first elected in 1998 is a forty-year resident of Bernalillo who retired in 2002 after twenty-seven years as an insurance agent. He's also retired as a major with the New Mexico Army National Guard.

One challenge Sapien continues to face is balancing needs within District 5, which takes in all or part of ten communities, including Placitas, Bernalillo, and La Madera, and extends from Sandia Pueblo and northeastern Rio Rancho to San Felipe Pueblo and San Pedro Creek Estates.

“It is the most diverse district in the county socially, economically, and ethnically,” he said. Issues related to Placitas and Bernalillo take up about 90 percent of his time, he added.

Outspoken members of those two communities, however, contend they aren't getting the attention they deserve. Proponents of forming a Placitas County say the area pays much more in taxes than it receives in services, while Bernalillo town officials complain about lack of communication and financial support from a county seemingly awash in cash after handling the $16 billion Intel bond deal.

A particular sticking point with the town is its ambulance service, a $300,000 budget drain that was supposed to end January 1 with the start-up of a county fire and emergency-medical-services system. The county is collecting the new EMS tax but has delayed the startup to July 1, prompting the town to cry foul.

“We've already paid two weeks of salaries the county was supposed to cover,” town administrator Lester Swindle said. “I'm just not going to carry them any more.”

Sapien said the county administration is working with the town and will resolve the issue.

The county already has floated $55 million of its own bonds based on revenue from Intel and set aside $12 million for a permanent fund to support water, wastewater, and education projects. Each commissioner was allocated $1.3 million to spend in his district, most of which Sapien already has promised,, including $300,000 to repair waterlines in Bernalillo.

“Some of these people have been standing in line for quite a while,” Sapien said. “After the results of the [Placitas] Survey are known, I hope to put some of that money into the library and be a catalyst to get that started.”

Sapien said Placitas, despite being spread over a wide area, displays a public spirit, with ample turnouts for the July 4 parade, concerts, church services, and business and political events.

“I think people have a sense of community out there,” he said. “What we need to do is create a location that is a focal point.”

Whether that hints at the results of Placitas Survey, which asked questions about expanding the community center and building facilities on 6.3 acres of adjacent donated park land, may be revealed on February 3.


Sandoval County Line—William Sapien elected commission chair

William Sapien
Sandoval County Commission

A friend and successful business owner in Bernalillo includes a brief note with each purchase to let customers know he values their business. In it, he commits to treat each customer with respect, provide responsive service, and make each transaction as easy and successful as possible.

That, too, is the pledge I made to county residents when the commission elected me to chair the governing board this year. I'm not new to the challenges that come with the gavel, as I was first elected to lead the commission in 2001 and have served two years as vice chairman.

When I first took the oath of county commissioner six years ago, a reporter asked what I hoped to accomplish. I replied that I hoped to become a student of county government and a responsive, respectful public official. Today, I have only scratched the surface of what I seek to accomplish as a population surge has brought exponential increases in challenges and opportunities that were not envisioned in 1999.

What has remained constant, however, is the quality and dedication of county employees. As a commissioner, I have come to recognize and appreciate the talents and abilities of county manager Debbie Hays, each of the county's 381 employees and the hundreds of residents who volunteer time and talents to make our communities better places to live and work.

When we look back twelve months from now, the commission and employees will have engaged issues not even envisioned today. Yet, by working closely with my fellow commissioners, county residents, and employees, I intend to bring about successful closure to needed and worthwhile projects.

As chairman, I will strive to put programs in place that will assist us in recruiting and retaining quality employees at all levels, to build on the fine workforce we now appreciate, and recognize the time and commitment given by volunteers. Toward that goal, I will revisit the organizational chart so that we can even further increase the effectiveness and responsiveness of county employees and explore ways to refine and improve our employee pay and retirement plans in order to retain and attract a quality workforce in today's competitive market. And we must recognize the tireless efforts of our unpaid volunteers who contribute so much.

During the coming months, we will open the Justice Complex adjacent to the county's newly opened Health Commons. We also will finalize a grounds and landscape master plan so that the county complex can be used and enjoyed by all residents.

We need to refurbish our current facilities to make them more user friendly and fully move into the new Bureau of Elections building to improve voting conditions. The current Judicial Complex will be renovated for use by Juvenile Probation and other agencies. And we will open the expanded, modernized County Detention Center and develop the El Zócalo complex as an effective economic development center.

We also will establish and implement the transit authority, mark the beginnings of the regional light-rail system, and establish a transportation system to ease the burden of traffic congestion. Those moves will result in significant spin-off benefits for economic development and the environment.

I also intend to appoint a board that will develop a policy statement and disbursement process for the county's newly established permanent fund. In that way, we can assist our communities and rural areas as they, too, work to improve water, wastewater, and educational systems throughout the county.

Each of the five commissioners, too, brings their individual plans for the county and their districts. We will work to find common ground for our ideas and fully utilize our facilities advisory group.

In that way, we can develop and implement programs and projects that best serve county residents and, as my business friend promises, make each transaction as successful as possible.

Questions or comments for Commissioner Sapien can be mailed to him in care of Sandoval County Administrative Offices, P.O. Box 40, Bernalillo 87004.






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