Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front

c. Dorothy Bunny Bowen
c. Dorothy Bunny Bowen

Placitas Studio Tour
May 13 & 14 • 10am-5pm

c. Sue Winstead

Placitas Garden Tour
May 21 • 9am-4pm 


Grass rooted in El Oso ditch since last irrigation season proved a tough foe for the shovel crew that included (from left) Santiago Unale and Leonard Gurulé of Placitas, and Shayla Colton, a partner in Anasazi Fields Winery.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Shoveling community ditches———a springtime rite

~Bill Diven

The shovel brigade arose early on a recent Saturday and by the time they were done, Las Acequias de Placitas was ready for irrigation season.

More than twenty men and one woman split into two groups. Those with two water rights attacked El Oso ditch, the tougher project in the upper reaches of the village, where damaging rain fell late last year.

The second group, holders of a single water right, went after the lower La Ciruela ditch which has a gentler slope, but is longer. The acequia association lists 101 members, some with multiple properties and all relying on spring-fed holding ponds for their water, said Mayordoma Angela Gonzales.

"The springs haven’t popped yet," Gonzales said. "It’s still too cold at night."

In the past, the mayordomo would begin filling the ponds known as tanques in the Sandia Mountains foothills about two weeks before releasing water. Gonzales said she starts four to six weeks ahead and captures enough water to open the gates on April 24.

"I need enough water to send for a week and let it recharge the next week," she continued. Filling ponds earlier has allowed her to increase deliveries from what had been one hour per night, every other week, to about three times that, she added.

As Gonzales drove back and forth checking on progress, the two crews worked largely out of sight, maneuvering among homes, fields, and gardens in a traditional rite of spring. While the conservancy district along the Rio Grande cleans its canals and laterals with heavy equipment, the show of human force in communities like Placitas dates to the earliest days of irrigated agriculture in the Southwest.

Water meant life, and efficient ditches held the promise of more food for all. Two Placitas ditch associations along Las Huertas Creek—La Rosa Castilla and Las Huertas Community Ditch—and scores more across the state were making similar preparations.

"I’ve been doing this since I was 12," said former Mayordomo Santiago Unale, now 75, as he took a break from keeping the Oso ditch crew moving. His father was a mayordomo, and the sweating crew this morning included his grandson Courtney Unale.

"We used to get more people than now," he continued. "Our family was born and raised here, and we’ve done this most of our lives.

"Most of us learned from our parents, and we try to keep it going."

In truth, as land changed hands in Placitas, fields gave way to gardens and gardens to landscaping. While cherries, apples, plums, and apricots still make their way to dinner tables and farmers markets (and into empanadas and local wines), the ditches also remain vital as a drainage system.

"Even when we’re not using it for water, there can be flooding if it’s not properly maintained," Gonzales said.

The rains in November filled the upper ditch with sediment, and it took some hired help to clear them, she said. That still left extra work for the spring shovelers, she added.

But with the ditches cleaned and irrigation season begun, the mayordoma’s work is hardly done.

"Once I start running the water, I start weed-whacking," Gonzales said.

Governor, Legislature locked in budget stalemate

~Bill Diven

Six weeks after the Legislature adjourned, the impasse with the governor over a new $6.1 billion budget continues, with no date for a special session set by the time the May Signpost went to press.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of funding for the Legislature and higher education escalated the standoff. In late April, the Legislature sued the governor saying she lacked the constitutional power to defund another branch of government or make university funding contingent on approving her nominees for boards of regents.

Meanwhile, colleges facing a May 1 deadline were preparing budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1 without knowing what their state funding will be.

Along the way Martinez ordered state agencies to plan for employee furloughs, saying the Legislature hadn’t done enough to fix the current year’s budget. That may be a phantom issue, however, as a recent nonpartisan revenue forecast shows no sign of a shortfall finishing out the budget year.

"We feel that what the governor has done has been truly unfair for the citizens of New Mexico and for the certain groups she line-item vetoed, higher education being one of those," said Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo. “It has truly put our state into a sad state of affairs both locally statewide and nationally."

The conflict made it into the Washington Post, saying education funding already was in trouble in New Mexico given past cuts to public schools and higher education.

Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, represents Placitas and joined all other House Republicans in voting against the budget that balanced with a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. The budget passed 37-32 with the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate insufficient to override vetoes without Republican support.

"It’s good to hear the budget projects are not as dire as what people think they are," Smith told the Signpost. "If that’s the case, I think that will make our negotiations much easier once we get back."

Smith said a bipartisan group of legislators has been discussing a comprehensive tax package, although he concedes that may be a heavy lift for a special session. And some of the potentially large revenue increases vetoed by Martinez may yet survive, he added.

"There has already been several things that everybody has kind-of agreed to; I think even the governor has," he said, citing the expansion of state sales taxes to online sales and nonprofit hospitals. "It’s more of an equity-fairness sort of thing."

What Smith calls equity and fairness for competing businesses has also been described as closing tax loopholes, which might give Martinez political cover for her pledge never to raise taxes.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, called the stalemate a simple power play as minority Republicans who lost control of the House in the last election support the governor less for her benefit than their own.

"My sense is the governor is going to drag her feet and not show any leadership," Sapien said. "She’s going to wait and the House Republicans are going to wait until the witching hour and force us into a compromise of hers in what the media constantly call the "Democratic-controlled Legislature."‘

During the session, Sapien carried a bill, sought by the state’s hospitality industry, to apply the short-term lodgers tax to the growing use of home and room rentals usually arranged through online services. The bill cleared the Senate 30-8 and the House 61-0 only to be vetoed by Martinez.

While the governor cited boosting tourism in her veto message, Sapien said she in effect protected some property owners rather than create a level playing field for that part of the industry.

Smith fared better in the session with a personal-best nine pieces of legislation being signed into law. That’s a sign he doesn’t push a partisan agenda, he added.

On this third try, Smith said that a bill limiting and clarifying the use of emergency physical restraint on public school students passed, after he brought school districts, parent groups like the Autism Society, and law enforcement together. He also passed a statewide broadband bill envisioning a network eligible for federal funding with particular attention to schools and universities.

Lente said that he’ll try again to pass legislation aimed at the lagging success of Native American students in public schools, where dropout rate nears fifty percent. While Martinez in her veto message called it an unfunded mandate, Lente said it would instead work within existing federal impact funds paid to districts with large Native American populations.

"Now that was a true disservice to Native American student population in New Mexico because the statistics don’t lie," he said.

Lente also cosponsored a bill related to the opioid drug epidemic by adding opioid education to treatment centers and expanding the use of the anti-overdose drug Naxalone to include law enforcement officers.

The Legislature also reauthorized past, unspent funds for local construction projects to include arsenic treatment at a Bernalillo town well. The town had been hoping for state aid in the $800,000 job of relocating utilities for the widening of U.S. Highway 550 across the Rio Grande.

With only about $64 million available compared to hundreds of millions in the not-too-distant past, capital funds instead were split between replenishing school reserves and shoring up the operational budget in a bill the governor vetoed.

Wood Chipper Day in early June

On June 3, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District (CSWCD) will provide a wood chipper machine and crew at the Placitas Community Library. The chipper can handle branches up to six inches in diameter, and bundles of dead and dried limbs and twigs, the tidier the better. Avoid still-green and moist leaves that tend to clog the chipper. Sandoval County residents can bring multiple loads, and the resulting wood chips are free for immediate take-away, or can be picked up from the parking lot for a few days following the event. CSWCD appreciates voluntary donations for this service, suggesting $5 to $10 a load, depending on the size of your vehicle or trailer.

County trash plan, P&Z protections and manager search still unresolved

~Signpost Staff

The Sandoval County Commission ended April about where it began when it comes to three big issues: a countywide trash-collection plan, clarity in appointments to the planning-and-zoning board, and hiring a county manager.

A replacement for County Manager Phil Rios now appears unlikely to arrive before his May 31 retirement. Rios had delayed departing for two months to help transition the new manager but said he’s now sold his house and ready to move closer to grandchildren in Oklahoma.

Initial advertising attracted more than a dozen applicants from within the state who all spent time in closed interviews with county commissioners. But after hours of interviews, including second go-rounds with three finalists, no consensus emerged.

"We have not been able to decide on anyone we interviewed," Commission Chairman Don Chapman told the Signpost after the April 20 commission meeting. "We’re just not there, and we’re continuing to look."

With the position posted as open until filled, and new round of advertising is drawing fresh applicants, he added.

Meanwhile, the county is taking a second run at franchising residential trash collection outside municipalities. A request for proposals (RFP) released in August that prompted responses from two companies, and howls of protest from Placitas residents, has been canceled.

The initial RFP contemplated a single company winning the franchise giving residents the choice of signing up with that company or hauling their own trash. Placitas residents appearing in force at public meetings said they were generally happy with the competing companies currently serving the community and saw no reason for change.

Proponents noted, however, those companies aren’t serving other rural areas where residents, and apparently some businesses, dump randomly and for free.

"We have arroyos full of trash," Cuba Mayor Mark Hatzenbuhler said during the March 30 commission work session. "I’m very much in favor of this."

Some Cuba residents have gone so far as to pool money for dumpsters and pay commercial rates for their residential trash pickup, he added.

Commissioners, early on, ruled out making trash collection mandatory, but the owners of the two companies that responded to the RFP—Road Runner Waste Service of Algodones and United Waste Services (UWS), a California company operating in New Mexico—said that would be the key to success.

"You’re not solving the problem if you only let the people who want to do the right thing participate," said Road Runner President Lee Dante.

Complicating the issue as well is the prospect of picking a single company as the expense of other local businesses.

"There’s got to be a better small-market solution," Commissioner Jay Block said. "This is a blanket solution for a diverse county, and it doesn’t fit."

Ultimately commissioners directed the county staff to work on a new RFP asking respondents to address what happens to service and rates if Placitas is included or excluded. The process is clouded, however, after commissioners revealed a letter from a lawyer for either Road Runner or UWS raised the possibility of a lawsuit.

Nearing resolution is the controversy over fairness and transparency in replacing appointed members of the county Planning and Zoning Commission. Trouble began early this year when Block took office, following a past practice of new county commissioners being able to replace P&Z commissioners from their district.

Complicating further, the P&Z staff, later backed by the county attorney, announced that three appointees that filled vacancies last year were mistakenly given full two-year terms instead of just the remainder of the existing term. A Corrales resident appointed by Block’s predecessor appointed in October was out in March.

That prompted clarifying amendments to the ordinance governing the P&Z Commission. With term lengths apparently settled, questions about dismissing a commissioner without cause, or a public hearing, held up approval during both of April’s regular County Commission meetings.

Speaking at both meetings, Alan Friedman of Placitas and Mary Feldblum of Corrales urged new language protecting P&Z commissioners from arbitrary dismissal. The updated ordinance is expected to be ready for county commissioners’ May 18 meeting.

"Part of my concern is it threatens the independence of the people on the P&Z Commission, so in my mind it will be harder to get good people," Friedman said.

The all-volunteer P&Z Commission acts somewhat like a court in hearing sworn testimony from the parties and citizens offering comment. P&Z hearings cover land-use issues from new subdivisions and zone changes to a 2015 request to permit an oil well near Rio Rancho.

The commission only recommends actions, however, with final decisions made by county commissioners after a second formal hearing. Decisions can then be appealed to District Court

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