Sandoval Signpost

 

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988
  Up Front
 

c. Susan Junge

Block print, by Susan Junge. The Placitas Holiday Fine Arts & Crafts Sale returns to Placitas on November 17 and 18 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. See Sandoval Arts for story.


Bernalillo Town Council postpones decisions on gravel mine

—Ty Belknap

On October 8, the Bernalillo Town Council voted to postpone further discussion, consideration, and action on proposed zoning changes and annexation of land east of I-25 that includes controversial Fisher Gravel Mining operations. Mayor Jack Torres said that the council will not consider these changes until the applicant answers a list of questions regarding the intended use of the property, access, and impacts. Officials do not have sufficient information at this point to determine whether the annexation would be beneficial to the Town.

Just prior to the meeting, Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association Legal/Political Chairman Ed Majka posted an article on the ES-CA (es-ca.org) website expressing concern about the Town’s dealings with Fisher. The article read:

“It has come to our attention that “behind the scenes” discussions between the Town of Bernalillo representatives and Fisher Sand and Gravel have been going on for some time. Fisher has offered to allow building a detention pond on a portion of their property, working with ESCAFCA, possibly in return for an annexation into Bernalillo and re-zoning of their property.

This possible re-zoning would allow Fisher to re-open their sand and gravel operations and perhaps an asphalt plant. All of this would be in conjunction with the 2013 reconstruction of the I-25/Rt. 550 interchange.

Since Mayor Torres represents both the Town of Bernalillo and is one of three Board members of Eastern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control  (although one of the three, Wayne Sandoval, has not been attending meetings recently), a conflict of interest seems apparent.

Sandoval County, under pressure from local residents and members of ES-CA, issued a zoning violation decree on January 27, 2012 to close down the Fisher site—including their attempt to locate an asphalt plant. Now it appears Fisher is pursuing other alternatives, utilizing the Town of Bernalillo and ESCAFCA to re-open operations.

At the most recent ESCAFCA Board meeting, ES-CA expressed “on the record” our concern that Fisher is attempting to re-open operations… that annexation is a way of going around the County ruling to shut Fisher down… and that Mayor Torres is representing both ESCAFCA and the Town of Bernalillo; all which would assist Fisher’s goals.

We must attend future ESCAFCA meetings, Bernalillo Town Council meetings, Bernalillo P&Z meetings, and campaign our concerns to local and state officials. ES-CA will lead the way, but needs your support to demonstrate our community concerns.”

Mayor Torres objected to the inferences of unethical government “and other vague allegations” made in this posting and told the Signpost, “One of the most worrisome statements is the allegation of “behind the scenes” discussions. The only time I discussed this issue with Fisher was at public meeting with the Town Council. [Fisher] discussing an application with town staff is another matter. There is nothing unethical about staff dealing with these issues because it is their job to field zoning questions and to inform applicants about the rules and permits, to administer ordinances, and to get issues on the agenda where they are considered by the mayor and councilors in a public forum. Staff doesn’t have a vote. My job is to run the proceeding and make sure the meetings are open and allow public comment. I don’t have behind the scenes discussions.”

Torres also disagreed with the characterization of his duel role as Mayor and ESCAFCA board member as a conflict of interest. “Flood control is just one aspect of Town government. I don’t see it as a conflict. Its a complimentary interest.”

Torres pointed out that he still adheres to his campaign promise to be very cautious about any annexation of land by the town. He pushed the council to consider the ideas presented in the Curbside Chat program (strongtowns.org), which cautions against short-term growth strategies funded by long-term commitments to developers (see article in August 2012 Signpost (www.sandovalsignpost.com/aug12/html/around_town.html). It is questionable that an asphalt plant on the edge of town would benefit Bernalillo.

ES-CA sometimes rubs our government representatives the wrong way, but provides an important service to community as watchdog over the actions of local governing entities. They won’t let anybody sneak an asphalt plant into our backyard without a fight.


WHOA lawsuit dismissed

Signpost staff

According to an article published in the Albuquerque Journal on October 6, a federal judge recently dismissed the case filed by the Placitas-based Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA) against Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the Bureau of Land Management and Al Baca in April of 2011. The lawsuit sought to prevent the BLM and Baca from rounding up free-roaming horses in BLM lands and Baca’s land north of Placitas.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque said the BLM published legal notices saying it planned to impound and remove “unauthorized livestock,” including horses on public lands around Placitas. It asks the court to grant a temporary restraining order or injunction preventing the BLM from removing the horses. WHOA claimed the removing the horses would violate a 1971 federal law designed to protect wild horses.

BLM District Manager Ed Singleton said at the time that the horses don’t fall under the protections of the Wild Horse and Burro Act because they belong to San Felipe Pueblo and were not therefore classified as wild. In any case, he denied rumors that the BLM was planning a roundup.

WHOA is a nonprofit organized to protect the many free-roaming horses in the Placitas area. Their lawsuit also contended that removal of the horses would harm association members who enjoy observing, photographing, and writing about the horses.

The Journal article went on to state that, “U.S. District Court Judge Christina Armijo denied the association’s request to further amend its case and granted Baca’s request to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be re-filed. In her order, Armijo granted Baca’s request because the Wild Horse Act does not provide for an action filed by a private group or individual. It also said the law the association sought relief under did not apply to a non-governmental defendant.”

In September 2012, WHOA included in a bulk mailing a letter from San Felipe Governor Anthony Ortiz that denied ownership of the horses. The letter commended WHOA for its work on behalf of the “wild horse herds.” The bulk mailing also included a WHOA newsletter which endorsed San Felipe’s efforts to acquire the BLM land north of Placitas. (see October 2012 Signpost or visit www.sandovalsignpost.com/html/            up_front.html#b).

WHOA president Patience O’Dowd had no comment for the Signpost regarding dismissal of the lawsuit, except for an email stating, “The Wild Horse Observers Association, through its attorneys, is appealing.”


Voter suppression investigated

Recent reports of poll-challenger training in Sandoval County have prompted a full investigation by Attorney General Gary King who is simultaneously exploring available sanctions against those found guilty of voter suppression tactics.

“I will not tolerate voter suppression efforts by anyone, period,” says AG King. “We have received a number of complaints since last Friday that there seems to be a concerted effort afoot to discourage some New Mexicans from exercising their right to vote this November. My office is committed to helping ensure fair elections by working to put an immediate stop to such misinformation and publically correcting what has already been disseminated.”

By definition, voter suppression is any attempt to influence elections by discouraging or actually preventing people from going to the polls. Last week a Sandoval County GOP official reportedly told trainees, among other false information, that they could ask voters to present identification in order to vote. New Mexico law does not require ID to vote.

“It’s against New Mexico law to check for ID,” New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce told a Denver, Colorado reporter last week.

AG King is calling upon Governor Susana Martinez and NM Secretary of State Dianna Duran to join him in repudiating voter suppression tactics and to work together to ensure fair elections in New Mexico.


Sandoval County property taxes and New Mexico’s yield control formula

—Stephen M. Barro

Many Sandoval County taxpayers may have found it puzzling that the state has ordered the County to raise its property tax rates even though the County government wanted to leave them unchanged. Adding to the confusion, the amounts of the increases have not been accurately reported. The New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), which oversees local government finances, determined the new, higher rates by applying the state’s statutory yield control formula. Here are the tax-rate details, followed by an explanation of yield control and a summary of pertinent issues:

Last year’s County operating tax rates, which County officials intended to retain this year, were 5.621 mills on residential property and 8.895 mills on nonresidential property. The new DFA-ordered residential rate, 5.964 mills, is 6.1 percent higher than last year’s; the new nonresidential rate, 10.030 mills, is a steep 12.8 percent higher. (The County’s separate property taxes for debt service and hospitals do not enter into this discussion.) Because property values have fallen, leaving the rates unchanged would have resulted in about a 2.8 percent reduction in revenue from the operating levy, but the mandated rate increases have turned that around, so revenue is instead projected to grow by 5.4 percent.

Looking just at the statutory language (NMSA 7-37-7.1), one might reasonably infer that yield control applies only to cases in which a local authority’s property tax base has risen because of reassessment. The formula adjusts tax rates downward to offset such rises, thereby limiting the increase in property tax revenue. Over the years, however, state agencies have interpreted yield control to also work in the opposite direction—that is, to adjust tax rates upward to offset the revenue drops that would otherwise occur when assessed values fall. It is this reverse form of yield control that resulted in mandated rate increases in Sandoval County.

The yield control formula sets limits (“growth factors”) on annual increases in revenue from taxation of residential and nonresidential property. These limits are calculated by adding together (1) an allowance for inflation (currently 3.3 percent) and (2) the percentage by which the pertinent tax base has gone up because of additions of new (as opposed to reassessed) taxable property. This year’s limits on Sandoval County’s revenue increases are 5.1 and 5.9 percent, respectively, for residential and nonresidential property taxes. DFA used these percentages to determine the County’s allowable revenue from taxing each type of property and then calculated the tax rates—the new, mandated rates—needed to generate those revenue amounts.

It is not unusual in New Mexico, when property values are falling, for the state to require a local government to set higher tax rates than that government itself would have chosen. The same thing happened in Sandoval County last year: the tax base had declined, and DFA ordered rate hikes to offset the revenue loss. Then, as now, some County officials bemoaned their inability to control the County’s taxes. It appears, however, that a county may not be completely without recourse. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Bernalillo County, two years ago, responded to a similar order to raise rates by negotiating a compromise that temporarily held rates down. Whether Sandoval County could do something similar is worth exploring.

More generally, even though New Mexico’s yield control provision dates from 1979, it appears that some issues concerning it remain unsettled. Very briefly:

First, because the statute is not explicit about whether or how yield control should apply when assessed values decline, it would seem desirable to reconsider, and perhaps to reformulate, that aspect of the law.

Second, although the statute prohibits jurisdictions from setting rates that will produce revenues “in excess of” specified limits, DFA seems to view the formula-based rates not just as upper bounds but rather as stipulated rates that local governments must adopt. Clarification is needed of whether that interpretation is proper.

Third, as critics have pointed out, the yield control mechanism takes no account of the expenditure side of a local government’s budget. Should a County or other jurisdiction with a falling tax base be afforded the option, now absent, of reducing spending rather than raising tax rates, or perhaps doing some combination of both?

In sum, although yield control may be useful for restraining local taxing and spending under certain conditions, it can also have unintended and not necessarily desirable effects; so there are elements of both law and practice that the state legislature might profitably reexamine.

Note to Placitas taxpayers: Although the County’s operating tax rates are going up, those increases will be more than offset for Placitas homeowners by reduced ESCAFCA taxes. Most Placitas tax bills should show a total property tax rate slightly below last year’s.


Changes planned for Placitas recreational trails

—Ty Belknap

Last February, District Ranger Sid Morgan of the Sandia Ranger District posted a notice at the trailhead announcing plans to evaluate recreational trails in the Bernalillo Watershed Research Natural Area and surrounding United States Forest Service administered lands. The popular trails system in this area is commonly known as the Loop (defined by the forest road), and is located just below the S-curves south of SR 165.

The notice stated that the over twenty-five miles of user-created trails range in condition from little impact to extreme loss of vegetation and soil erosion. Furthermore, it stated, “While many trails developed as a result of cattle trails, old roads, and frequent travel, signs of [prohibited] current development and construction are evident. Many trails enter the Sandia Mountain wilderness, which are being utilized by mountain bicyclists, which is also prohibited.”

Morgan encouraged public participation and comment in the process. Questions and comments can be addressed to wilderness and Trails Program Manager, Kerry Wood at kwood@fs.fed.us or 505-281-3304.

Shortly after the notice was posted, several area residents formed the Placitas Area Trail Association (PATA). The mission statement posted on the PATA website (placitasareatrail.org) states,  “For the land issues to be addressed, PATA needs to have a plan to maintain and expand the trail system. That means that we need input on what our members want and a written plan that reflects that input. We will also depend on our members to maintain the trails and to get their hands dirty with trail projects. Register and let your voice be heard!”

PATA spokesman Tim Garner told the Signpost that his organization currently has sixty members. “We mapped the trails and came up with a plan that was almost identical to the one that Kerry Wood made. We were pleasantly surprised that this is not some Big-Brother Government-imposed plan. Kerry is a mountain biker, hiker, and a true trail builder and designer.”

The PATA mission statement continues, “ PATA is dedicated to protecting, preserving, and enhancing the trails in the Placitas area. The trails have been in use and have slowly expanded for many decades. Those of us that enjoy the trails have grown to love the beauty and diversity found here. We want everyone who loves these trails to join. Hikers, runners, equestrians, and mountain bikers are all welcome.”

Garner said that once a plan is approved, PATA members will volunteer to help make changes, post signage, and maintain trails. A trail from the parking lot will be dedicated exclusively to hikers so they can relax, walk dogs, and enjoy a nearby hike without the occasional congestion and drama of mountain bikers and equestrians. PATA seeks to help ensure that the area is multi-user friendly.

In the past, there has been some friction among users. Hikers have booby-trapped new trails used by mountain bikers. Mountain bikers go fast and startle horses and hikers. Off-leash dogs can cause problems for everybody. Some hikers routinely tear down signage and cairns, objecting to impingement upon their wilderness experience.

“People should keep in mind that this is not a wilderness area. There is plenty of wilderness right on its border,” said Garner. He said that maps, trails, and signs make the area safer and easier to use and maintain. “If a guy breaks his leg, if would be helpful to be able to tell rescuers where he is.”

Kerry Wood said that the area has been “basically unmanaged forever,” and that as it becomes more popular, steps need to be taken to provide an official trail system that protects the watershed and its grasslands and archeological sites. “We need to provide a presence and enforcement of regulations,” he said. “Our goal is to help provide a culture among users to recreate responsibly.” Wood said that motorized use of the trails is prohibited, and that ATV’s that are not licensed for highway travel are not even allowed on the forest road.

“I mapped over forty miles of trails with a GPS while riding my bike. There are some great trails out there, but a lot of them are unsustainable because they are not designed in a way to prevent erosion,” Wood said. “Some trails run straight downhill with no undulation, and as they erode, users just keeping moving them over a bit. Others have too steep a grade. We want to reroute some trails—make them longer or less steep. Some trails will be closed and reseeded. Some trails will be rerouted out of the wilderness area.”

Wood said that he expects the environment analysis and public comment periods required prior to taking action on the plan will be completed sometime this winter.


Placitas area BLM comment deadline extended through November 26

—Sandy Johnson, Las Placitas Association

On October 9, board members from Las Placitas Association and Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association met with Jesse Juen, the State Director of the BLM and his assistant Aden Seidlitz in Santa Fe and secured a 45-day extension to the comment period for the Placitas BLM resource management Plan.

State Representative David Doyle arranged the meeting to include the Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Cangiolosi, and State Energy and Minerals Secretary John Bemis. The purpose of the meeting was to convince the BLM that the Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) in their Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the 3,142 acres in Placitas contained enough text and mapping flaws that Placitans could not accurately provide comments.

Maps presented in the plan have been superseded more than once due to errors found by LPA members studying it. Boundaries for proposed new gravel mines were not always defined in the alternatives, and text in the plan did not match maps in the plan. One alternative proposed by the BLM didn’t even have a description of the land use included at all, and page numbers between hard and electronic media differed.

With those kinds of errors, LPA and ES-CA was concerned that comments made by the citizens of Placitas could end up being ignored, or worse, members of the community could make little sense of the text and maps and not provide comments at all.

LPA and ESCA continue to work on creating substantive comments to the BLM by the new comment period due date. Using the correct maps on the LPA web site you can see where BLM proposed mining sites are, and if you’d like to hike out there you will find that the two pieces of the eight-hundred acres proposed for mining, are staked and marked.

Another accomplishment at this meeting was to get both LPA and ES-CA on the list of officials and agencies to be contacted when specific BLM projects are planned in the Placitas area, prior to their environmental assessments, so we can effectively participate in the process. We are now going to be notified with the quarterly “Expression of Interest” letter assembled by the BLM that lists proposed mining operations for the area. Both organizations will post information as it is received about upcoming BLM activities in Placitas, and if you wish to be notified you may register on the LPA and/or ES-CA to receive that information.

Please plan on submitting your comments on the proposed use of the Placitas BLM. Participation matters. Both LPA and ES-CA will have sample comments on their respective web sites to help with the formulation of yours. You can submit your comments via email to: NM_RPFO_Comments@blm.gov.

The official BLM website is: www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/fo/Rio_Puerco_Field_Office/rpfo_planning/rpfo_draft_rmp.html

If you would like to participate in a community survey that will be used to identify preferences for the BLM Resource Management Plan, log on to the Las Placitas Association or the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association web page and link to the BLM RMP Survey.

LPA and ES-CA were greatly aided in convincing the BLM to extend the comment period by our state and federal legislators. On the state level, State Senator John Sapien, State Representative Jim Smith and State Representative David Doyle have worked in concert with LPA and ES-CA. Senator Sapien worked with Director Juen to achieve the initial extension. State Representative David Doyle arranged the October 9 meeting, which included the Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Cangiolosi and State Energy and Minerals Secretary John Bemis. Patricia Dominguez from Representative Martin Heinrich’s staff also provided help on the federal level. We greatly appreciate the effort they all made on behalf of Placitas.

LPA and ES-CA will hold a community workshop to assist citizens in writing and submitting their substantive comments on November 17 at 2:00 p.m. at the Placitas Community Center. The new deadline for comments on the RMP is November 26.

 
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