Sandoval Signpost

 

An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front
 

Lights! Camera! County commissioners!

—Signpost Staff

Sandoval County commissioners aren’t sure if they’re ready for prime-time viewing, but they’ll at least take a look. Or, short of live streaming on the Web, you might be able to jump from cat and music videos on YouTube to the latest and archived commission meetings.

“It’s something whose time has come,” Commissioner Don Chapman, R-Rio Rancho, said during the February 19 meeting. “We have the potential to reach ninety percent of Sandoval County.”

The other ten percent, though, became an issue in the discussion, since much of rural Sandoval County lacks high-speed Internet access. In later public comment, Tom Plate of Rio Rancho suggested the county pursue funding through the federal Farm Bill, which includes money to expand broadband service in rural areas.

County Manager Phil Rios said the staff, which is working on next year’s budget, would look into the idea and report back. Beyond the cost of producing the video, potential issues include the cost of archiving the meetings and complying with requests for copies under the Inspection of Public Records Act, he said.

Making commission meetings more accessible to the public was part of a package of three ideas Chapman has been raising for several months before formally adding them to the agenda. The others are five-year fiscal planning and regular joint meetings in partnership with the city of Rio Rancho.

Chapman cited the work with Rio Rancho that led to creating the Sandoval Economic Alliance, a nonprofit, economic-development corporation formed last year with the goal of bringing jobs to the county. However, Chapman took heat from other commissioners over the wording of the agenda that implied he was only interested in partnering with Rio Rancho.

“On the wall of this building it says Sandoval County, not Rio Rancho County,” Commission Chairman Darryl Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, said. “The governor already snubbed my tribe. We don’t want to do the same thing, do we?”

Madalena’s comment on the governor referred to Indian Day at the Legislature on February 6. Where tribal leaders in the past have been invited to speak to a joint session of the Legislature and introduce guests, this year Gov. Susana Martinez took over as the sole speaker.

Chapman responded that it wasn’t his intention to limit intergovernmental meetings to Rio Rancho. “Everybody has a place at the table,” he said. “It’s simply a forum to exchange ideas.”

Commissioner Nora Scherzinger, D-Corrales, said that it wasn’t the meetings but the topics that concerned her. “We collaborate all over the county,” she said. “It’s not about collaboration. It’s about the agenda.”

Chapman also brought up the five-year fiscal plan prepared by a consultant in 2013, and commissioners agreed to include it in a workshop meeting set for March 25 to go over the budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.


Voters fill seats on four school boards

—Signpost Staff

All three members of the Bernalillo Public Schools Board of Education up for re-election have been returned to office by voters.

Only one of the seats was contested, as board Chair Ramona Salazar of Bernalillo defeated former Sandoval County Commissioner Orlando Lucero 227 to 203, according to canvassed vote totals. Board members Darlene Herrera of Cochiti Pueblo and Vincent Montoya of Bernalillo were re-elected without opposition in the February 3 polling.

In the Cuba Independent Schools, voters re-elected Vivian Keetso of Counselor, who was running unopposed, and did the same for Dianna Maestas-Lovato, who defeated Maria Carmen Gallegos 68 to 23. In District 5, Carl Stern was elected to an open seat by defeating Marcellino Crespín 28 to 25.

In the Jemez Valley Public Schools district, all three candidates—Erin Middleton, Michael Lucero, and Peter Madalena—ran unopposed. In Rio Rancho, Ramon Montaño and Ryan Parra ran without opposition for the two open seats. Turnout varied from a high of 584 in Bernalillo to 165 in Cuba, 268 in Jemez, and only 52 in Rio Rancho.


Democratic Sen. John Sapien (left) and Republican Rep. James Smith (right) flank Dick Ulmer of the Land Use Protection trust as they testify before a legislative committee in support of increasing county penalties for zoning violations. Photo credit: —Bill Diven 

Tougher penalties for gravel miners advances in House

—Bill Diven

The dustup between Sandoval County and gravel miner Vulcan Inc. now carries statewide implications as a bipartisan bill works its way through the Legislature.

House Bill 188 that increases penalties for violating a county ordinance regulating sand, gravel, and rock mining is sponsored in the House by Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, and in the Senate by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. The legislators’ districts both include Placitas and Algodones.

Under current law, the maximum penalty for violating most county ordinances is a three hundred dollar fine and up to ninety days in jail. HB188 would raise the fine to one thousand dollars a day for those mining operations.

“We find our community is basically being attacked from a health-and-welfare situation,” Dick Ulmer of Placitas testified before the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee. “The county, with this three hundred dollar limit that currently exists, just doesn’t have any teeth to enforce their zoning that was worked out very positively with members of the community.

“We estimate that the Lafarge pit is moving about twenty thousand dollars worth of material out of that mine a day, so a three hundred dollar fine, one time, isn’t going to catch anybody’s attention.”

Ulmer, who heads the Placitas-based Land Use Protection Trust, testified at the February 13 hearing as an expert witness flanked by Sapien and Smith.

By then the original bill had been pared back to apply the new fines only to the state’s five largest counties: Bernalillo, Doña Ana, San Juan, Sandoval, and Santa Fe.

“A lot of the large gravel mines that are being considered are in large metropolitan, and so they seem to impact more residents,” Smith said.

Seven Placitas residents, Sandoval County lobbyist Larry Horan, and representatives of the Association of Counties and Conservation Voters of New Mexico testified in support of the bill as did Smith, a member of the committee, and Sapien.

“It’s not designed to hurt business,” Horan said. “It’s like a speed-limit law. If you increase the fines for speeding over 75, that doesn’t mean you increase the cost of driving.”

The bill won a Do Pass recommendation on a three to two vote with Smith joining two Democrats voting in favor. Two of the other four Republicans on the committee were absent. At last report, the bill was awaiting a hearing before a second committee.

About 16 members of the audience, mostly contractors and gravel miners, spoke against the bill, although many their comments addressed increased regulation rather than higher fines. A separate bill by Smith and Sapien to regulate gravel mining under the state Mining Act was dropped from the February 13 agenda and later tabled, likely killing it for the current session.

On-topic criticism called the legislation highly punitive and said miners already are subject to heavy fines under state environmental laws. Steve Hooper, owner of Buildology Inc., a source of landscaping and construction materials, noted the quarry dated to 1972, prior to the county zoning ordinance, and that he was involved when the mining plan went through a zoning process in 1988.

“During that time we met with the homeowners and actually even allowed a road to go into some of the new subdivisions that were being developed with the understanding that they were to acknowledge that this was an existing pit that had been there for many, many years,” Hooper told the committee. “I understand that there’s an issue with the county and current operator, or maybe a prior operator, but the regulations are in place.”

Smith and Sapien drafted their zoning bills at the urging of Sandoval County officials and following long-running complaints about dust, noise, and the expansion of the Lafarge quarry on the Interstate 25 frontage road north of State Route 165. Last year Vulcan bought Lafarge, taking over its New Mexico facilities and a lawsuit the county filed against Lafarge in April 2014.

The lawsuit pending in District Court alleges Lafarge, and now Vulcan, violated a 1988 zoning agreement regulating quarry operations, expansion, and reclamation. Also last year, the state Environment Department cited the mine for air-quality and record-keeping violations.

In its response to the lawsuit, the company said a separate letter from the county grandfathered the quarrying as a permitted use and eliminated the restrictions in the 1988 agreement. The next action in the court process is a hearing yet to be scheduled on allowing the Land Use Protection Trust to join the lawsuit, according to online court records.

At last report, Smith and Sapien’s bill was awaiting a hearing before the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. If approved there, it would still face action by the full House, a run through the Senate, and a signature from the governor to become law.

The sixty-day session of the Legislature ends at noon on March 21.


Plague reported in the Sandia Mountains

—Sandia Ranger District

Plague has been reported in the Sandia Mountains, Cibola National Forest, and National Grasslands near the Balsam Glade picnic area off of Hwy 165. A hiker let her dog off the leash, just for a few minutes, when it found and ate a dead animal. The dog came down with plague three to four days later. The dog was immediately brought to the veterinarian, given antibiotics, and is now doing fine.

Plague can be fatal to people and pets unless properly diagnosed and treated immediately. It can be transmitted by fleas and contact with infected animals, such as rodents, rabbits, and pets.

To safeguard yourself and your pets avoid contact with wild animals, do not touch sick or dead animals. Use flea control products on pets all year round. Keep pets on leash when hiking in your national forest—not only will this keep your pet from getting plague, the leash will also keep your pet from getting lost or getting attacked by predators.

Take sick pets to a veterinarian if they suddenly become ill with fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite, and consult a doctor if you suddenly become ill. Symptoms of plague include fever, chills, headache, muscle pain, weakness, and sometimes buboes (tender and swollen lymph nodes in groin, armpit, or neck).

For additional information on plague, visit the New Mexico Department of Health’s website: nmhealth.org/about/erd/ideb/zdp/plg/.


Bernalillo touts progress and plans

—Bill Diven

After years in the financial doghouse, the town of Bernalillo is on track to clean up bookkeeping issues dating back years.

But getting caught up hasn’t been easy, Mayor Jack Torres said, as troubles beginning in 2006, like a three-year backlog in audits and not setting aside money for an upcoming two million dollar debt payment, meant he and the town staff had to scramble to keep the current books in balance after he took office.

The work of town treasurer Juan Torres in trying to repair the damage was further complicated by the not-always-aligned demands of two state agencies, turnover in those agencies, and the recent election of a new state auditor.

“Our expectation is that everything will be clean by the end of this fiscal year,” Torres said during his and town councilors’ annual State of the Town presentation on February 18. The town is now in good financial shape because new controls are in place, and the government lives within its means, he added.

The audit for the last fiscal year, which ended on June 30, reached the Office of the State Auditor by the December 1 deadline, accountant Chris Goeman, a certified public accountant with the town’s independent auditor, said during an earlier presentation. Of the nine accounting issues listed in the audit, all but one dated to 2006-08.

The new issue involved documentation supporting the wages and salaries paid to some employees, and the town has a plan to resolve that, Goeman said. Old issues ranged from broad confusion in the amount of back payments owed by utility customers to not being able to balance bank accounts.

The town has prepared a plan to correct the past issues with the help of the company that employs Goeman, but it needs the okay of both the state auditor and the Department of Finance and Administration. Treasurer Torres said after two years of dealing with the agencies, both appear ready to let the town resolve past discrepancies and move on.

Mayor Torres said that at one point the town had more than thirty bank accounts no one could explain, and it was impossible to reconcile accounts from past years.

“We couldn’t go back to a trial balance because our numbers are just fictitious,” he said. “We know what we have now. We’ve come such a long way.”

During the State of the Town meeting, Councilor Ronnie Sisneros said he was amazed at the number of business licenses issued by the town in 2014: a total of forty for storefront and home enterprises with eight more already open or announced for this year. (See separate story, page 13, this Signpost.)

The town also is getting compliments from residents and visitors for the recently landscaped entrance to the town from Interstate 25 on Avenida Bernalillo, he said. The new ponding area on South Hill Road reduced flood damage in the Mountain View neighborhood last summer where four homes suffered some damage compared to thirty to forty in years past, he added.

State-funded road projects managed by the town at U.S. Highway 550 and Avenida Don Tomas are adding turn lanes and reducing driver confusion while another at Avenida Bernalillo and Camino del Pueblo has added sidewalks improving pedestrian safety, Sisneros added.

The town is also close to a decision on a pedestrian crossing of the railroad tracks near the Rail Runner Express station to improve safety there as well, he said.

“We’re a small town, and we’re getting better and better at what we do,” Sisneros said.

Councilor Dale Prairie discussed the town utilities noting that the water system meets all standards, and collections of utility fees have risen to 97 percent from 72 percent. The new businesses coming to town mean additional revenue from water and sewer hookups, he said.

The town also now has the money to begin restoring Well No. 2 east of I-25 although it still relies heavily on a single pipe with no backup tied to wells west of the Rio Grande, Prairie said.

Councilor Marian Jaramillo continued the financial discussion saying the town now has a good handle on its seven million dollar annual budget. The town’s share of the state gross receipts tax, commonly called the local sales tax, is increasingly important, she said.

“Because we can expect less funding from the federal government and state government, it is imperative that our gross receipts tax continues to grow,” Jaramillo said.

Members of the public later expressed support for a renewed Buy Bernalillo campaign so residents would know when they’re leaving the town for adjacent Rio Rancho and tribal businesses.

The mayor and council also credited the town staff for their efforts mentioning a number who are working their way through professional certifications to improve services.

Mayor Torres also listed other events adding to the quality of life in Bernalillo:

  • Upgrades at the Coronado Campground buildings and shelters
  • Firefighters conducting CPR and First Aid classes for employees and residents
  • Annual programs that draw hundreds of kids and adults
  • Town staff leading children’s coat and school-supply drives
  • The police department providing a school resource officer and bike-patrol officers
  • Shutting down an oil-transload business opened without a business license or zoning authority
  • Overhauling public and senior housing and providing land for a new county senior center
  • Joining other agencies on Rio Grande flood control with a goal of eliminating flood insurance
  • Defending the town in discussions on overhauling the rest of U.S. 550 and connecting a bypass around Albuquerque from Interstate 40.
  • Preparing to unveil for public comment a water-conservation plan
  • Planning the Great Southwest Brew Festival with the New Mexico Brewers Guild, a one-time Labor Day event that may replace the annual New Mexico Wine Festival at Bernalillo, which ended its run after 27 years

Torres said the town is also working to establish new partnerships and strengthen old ones with other local governments and agencies.

“We are primarily here to be good stewards of the town and its resources,” he said.


BLM resource plan still in review stage

—Signpost Staff

The updated plan for managing Bureau of Land Management resources across a large section of north-central New Mexico isn’t quite ready for release.

Earlier, the head of the BLM Rio Puerco Field Office said the document, now more than six years in preparation, might be available to the public by mid February. Now it appears it will take another month or two before state and federal agencies complete finish their reviews and BLM staff absorbs the result, John Brenna Jr., acting Rio Puerco field manager, told the Signpost.

“Then we’ll sit down and see what’s best for the land and best for land use based on our knowledge,” he said.

Once the final plan is released, another round of public comments occurs, open only to parties already on record as commenting on the draft.

The document, known as a Resource Management Plan, updates a nearly twenty-year old plan by inventorying resources and plotting management strategies across six counties from Gallup on the west almost to Vaughn on the east and from south of Belen to Cuba and the Jemez Mountains on the north. Within that area are more than seven hundred thousand acres of public lands and 3.4 million acres of subsurface mineral rights controlled by the federal government.

Of particular interest to Placitas are two parcels, totaling 3,300 acres, that the BLM could keep as is or designate for some type of use or disposal. The largest, the 3,100-acre Buffalo Tract in northwestern Placitas, already is the object of public jousting among two pueblos, the Placitas land grant, and free-roaming horse advocates.

The tract contains recoverable sand and gravel estimated to be worth at least one billion dollars, so mining companies could be interested as well as land developers. The BLM has told interested parties it won’t accept any offers on any land until the official record of decision for the management plan is filed.

In addition to the Buffalo Tract, a hilly parcel of two hundred acres surrounded by subdivisions sits about a mile northwest of Placitas village. There also is a small parcel abutting San Felipe Pueblo in northeast Placitas, and another nine hundred acres taking in the Crest of Montezuma east of Placitas remains in limbo as a plan to transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service works its way through Congress.

Planning for the RMP update officially began with a notice in the Federal Register in 2008. By the time public comments closed at the end of 2012, more than thirty thousand comments had been received.


Oil pipeline nears return to service

—Bill Diven

Pipeline and construction crews finished their work and pulled out recently, so it won’t be long before crude oil starts flowing through Placitas for the first time since 2009.

Over the last nearly two years, Western Refining has evaluated, tested, and repaired as needed 299 miles of existing pipe and pump stations from the Four Corners to southeastern New Mexico. In Placitas, that included major work on a pump station on Camino de las Huertas to reverse the flow from the days when the line carried crude to the now-closed Giant Industries refinery in Bloomfield.

“Once we get it across the Sandias, gravity kind of takes hold,” said Gary Hanson, Western Refining vice president of corporate communications.

In the Placitas area, the pipeline is one of several in a corridor crossing under the Rio Grande and Interstate 25 north of Bernalillo, While the other lines head almost due east, Western’s line angles southeastward to the pump station and then along Camino de las Huertas and State Route 165 into the upper valley of Las Huertas Creek before climbing over the Crest of Montezuma.

Western acquired the line with its $1.2 billion dollar purchase of Giant in 2006.

Restoring the existing line built in the 1950s was estimated to cost up to thirty million dollars. The company said it would spend up to ninety million dollars more to extend it about seventy miles to a pipeline near Pecos, Texas. From there, oil produced in the Four Corners will flow to the Western refinery in El Paso.

Western also operates the former Giant refinery near Gallup.

No startup date has been announced beyond some time in the second quarter of the year. Additional information on the project was expected to be released during a quarterly conference call with market analysts scheduled for late February.

The only visible signs of the project left in Placitas are disturbed earth where crews accessed sections of the pipeline and extensive above-ground plumbing added at the pump station. The loud roaring heard recently at the pump station was the inert gas nitrogen being purged from the system after a pressure test.

Placitas is the biggest population center along the pipeline route, and Hanson said Western has to take steps to reduce noise at the pump station about a mile north of Placitas village.

“It shouldn’t be a disturbance,” he said. “Obviously if it is, we’ll take whatever means to eliminate it. The first day or two there may be some humming.”

The company has maintained contact with neighbors along the route to make them aware of the work and progress, he added.

Initially the pipeline is forecast to move more than ten thousand barrels of crude a day with a goal of reaching one hundred thousand barrels a day. A barrel is about 42 gallons.

The recent crash in oil prices doesn’t affect Western directly since, while it is paying less for crude oil, it is charging less for finished products. Any Four Corners producers with highly leveraged debt might be in trouble, Hanson said, although the company is comfortable with the producers it has lined up.

“We think it will be good for the area and good for us,” he said. “The producers know someone will buy their crude, and it’s good for us for quality control.”


House Education Committee endorses legislation to reward NM’s best and brightest teachers

—Chris Sanchez

On a vote of seven to six, the House Education Committee passed HB 76, legislation sponsored by Rep. Dennis Roch (R-Logan), to allow New Mexico’s best teachers to advance through the ranks faster. Doing so will reward outstanding teachers with a higher salary much sooner.

Roch’s legislation would allow “highly effective” or “exemplary” teachers to progress through the three-tier system faster. For example, New Mexico’s best teachers could earn a minimum of fifty thousand dollars in just four years of teaching instead of having to wait six years or more, which current law requires.

“Proven results in the classroom should open up the door to advancement,” Roch said. “This legislation reflects that belief.”

 
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