The County Line—
County upgrades Rio Rancho roads for growth
—Jack E. Thomas
Sandoval County Commission
You'd be hard pressed to find more than a handful of area motorists who haven't experienced the dangerous traffic congestion along NM 528, one of Sandoval County's most used thoroughfares.
But that's about to change very quickly.
Sandoval County intends to begin construction as early as January on two projects along north NM 528. The City of Rio Rancho, meanwhile, is working on a third project in the area. When work is finished, the improvements will ease the hazardous conditions that many drivers face daily as they travel north from Rio Rancho.
The county's projects will install signals and revamp the intersections of Iris/ Riverside and NM 528 and, just to the north, at the Idalia/Willow Creek and NM 528 intersection. More-accommodating turn lanes will provide easier access to both sides of NM 528. The traffic signals at the two intersections will regulate traffic flow and allow motorists to more safely enter and leave the three River's Edge subdivisions on the east of NM 528 and the growing number of developments to the west.
With considerable coordinating and planning efforts now underway, the projects could be completed by as early as next spring.
Separately, Rio Rancho is completing paving of the City's portion of Idalia Road from 40th Street to Northern. Once that project is finished, perhaps by Thanksgiving, all of Idalia will be paved from NM 528 to Northern. Anticipating growth in the area, Sandoval County paved its portion of Idalia from Iris to 40th Street more than two years ago.
Once fully paved, Idalia will serve as a highly convenient route for motorists to use when traveling to and from Rio Rancho or even to the densely populated developments along Albuquerque's West Mesa. Idalia, too, will relieve much of the traffic that now uses NM 528 to access the Town of Bernalillo and, eventually, Interstate 25 or US 550.
While we all know traffic congestion along NM 528 can be nightmarish at times, the professionals can tell us exactly how bad the situation really is.
Scoping studies commissioned by Sandoval County show 21,600 vehicles daily pass through the Idalia-NM 528 intersection. Even more startling, traffic volume is projected to reach forty-seven thousand vehicles a day by the year 2013, or about the same traffic flow as seen today at the intersection of 4th Street and Alameda in Albuquerque.
To minimize traffic tangles during construction, Sandoval County will install the signals and improve turning lanes along NM 528 under a very tight work schedule. Preliminary plans for the intersection improvements should be available for review by early November. Once plans are finalized, the county commission will advertise for contractors and, once bids are reviewed, select a contractor by year's end.
One way the county is speeding up work on the projects is by contracting with equipment manufacturers before the start of actual construction. That way, much of the signal equipment can be purchased in advance of actual construction and reduce lag time by as much as three months.
The county's engineer estimates the traffic signals and intersection improvements will cost about $323,000 for Idalia/Willow Creek and about $300,000 for Iris/Riverside.
To fund the projects, the Sandoval County Commission has committed $250,000 and Rio Rancho has allocated $50,000. The state legislature appropriated $275,000 for the projects and the state highway and transportation department will also allocate additional funds.
Questions or comments for Commissioner Thomas can be mailed to him in care of Sandoval County Administrative Offices, P.O. Box 40, Bernalillo 87004.
Wal-Mart controversy goes to trial in January
On January 26, opposing parties will meet in state court to determine whether a Wal-Mart Supercenter will be built at the corner of NM 528 and Corrales Road. The River's Edge One Neighborhood Association filed suit last year for a judgement from the court declaring that its restrictive covenants are valid and enforceable solely in order to prevent developer Pat Coughlin from selling commercial property next to River's Edge One subdivision to Wal-Mart.
Coughlin countersued to have the covenants declared invalid. He also sued for monetary damages, claiming that he had been coerced into agreeing to covenants that limited commercial buildings to sixty-five thousand square feet. He had agreed to the restrictions in 1999, after negotiations with REONA. The size restrictions were part of a compromise in exchange for a Rio Rancho zone-map amendment that allowed Coughlin to build a gas station and Burger King on his property.
A Wal-Mart Supercenter occupies 190,000 square feet. When Wal-Mart became interested in Coughlin’s property in 2001, his attorney, Brad Hays, found a loophole in the Rio Rancho ordinance that was passed in conjunction with the 1999 agreement. Last year, the Rio Rancho City Council threw out part of the ordinance because it improperly included the REONA covenants in the zone-change ordinance. Under municipal law, enforcement power cannot be delegated to private parties.
Rio Rancho has a growth policy designed in part to expand its tax base by attracting national chain stores like Wal-Mart. The city's action on the ordinance removed them as a litigant. The REONA restrictive covenants remain the only obstacle. Karen Boulanger of REONA, who has led the opposition to the superstore,says members are opposed to the Wal-Mart because of the impacts it will have on the neighborhood in terms of traffic, noise, lighting, and quality of life.
Hays says that his client was coerced into the 1999 agreement. At the heart of this argument is the personal relationship between Boulanger and Art Corsi, former director of city development in Rio Rancho—with fourteen years on the job. Hays contends that such a relationship could have created a conflict of interest and could have prompted Corsi to encourage Coughlin to negotiate with REONA, thereby depriving him of his constitutional right to develop his property.
Boulanger says that she started seeing Corsi socially less than a year ago. Part of Hays's pretrial discovery process is to find evidence that the relationship went back further. REONA attorney Jane Gagney said that Coughlin admitted in his pretrial deposition that he had no evidence to support this contention. "It is unconscionable to bring an allegation like this into a lawsuit," Gagney declared. "It is a frivolous abuse of the legal system that strains REONA economically. I can't help but wonder if that is the motive."
The September 20 issue of the Corrales Comment reports that a site-development plan for the Wal-Mart Supercenter will be submitted to the Rio Rancho planning and zoning board by the first week of October.
Santa Ana Pueblo seeks federal loan guarantee
Just like homeowners chasing lower interest rates, Santa Ana Pueblo hoped to save a little money on its mortgage.
Make that big money, as much as $30 million over twelve years on bank debt from building the pueblo’s Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Twin Warriors Golf Course. A deal to refinance $62 million through the New Mexico Finance Authority stalled in August, however, when governor Bill Richardson questioned the risks involved and whether the state might end up part-owner of a casino.
Since then, Santa Ana has been working to secure a federal loan guarantee through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to attract private lenders and satisfy the governor's concerns. Tribal leaders met with BIA officials in Washington late in September, but NMFA executive director David Harris said he did not know the results of those talks.
Tribal leaders are expected to report on their progress when they meet with legislators on the NMFA’s oversight committee on October 1 in Ruidoso.
“The lion’s share of the debt involves the Tamaya Resort,” Harris said. “They spent $100 million, then bookings went to hell.”
By law the authority cannot invest in gaming enterprises, he added.
Santa Ana has blamed its tight finances on the weakened economy and reduced business and pleasure travel after the East Coast terrorist attacks. The pueblo also lost money on an investment in China, leading to a public dispute with its financial advisers.
In 2001 the tribal enterprises laid off workers and stopped construction of a casino hotel, which remains unfinished. The situation today appears stable with the tribe current on its debt but facing a $52 million balloon payment to Wells Fargo in 2006, according to Harris.
Santa Ana pledged numerous assets as collateral for the new loan. Richardson, while wishing the tribe success, questioned whether the state could foreclose on a sovereign Indian nation.
“They have been honorable business people,” Harris said. “There have been no late or missed payments, even though it’s costing them dearly.”
The proposed refinancing is spread over twelve years, the length of Santa Ana’s current gaming compact with the state. While the hospitality industry has suffered statewide in the last two years, gaming revenue continues to trend upward, according to the New Mexico Indian Gaming Association.
The tribe owes Wells Fargo & Co. $82 million and is paying at least 12 percent interest on the debt, according to the finance authority. Refinancing at 6 per cent would save Santa Ana about $30 million in interest.
The NMFA is a state agency chartered in 1992 to loan money to local governments for public improvements. The Santa Ana loan was one of nearly three hundred authorized by the legislature earlier this year.
“The government-to-government deal is intended to be a refinancing, not a business loan,” Harris said.
Santa Ana governor Myron Armijo and a tribal attorney did not respond to messages left by the Signpost requesting comment on the refinancing. Armijo, in a letter published July 31, said the proposed loan is just the latest cooperative effort between the tribe and the state in support of tourism and economic development.
The tribal enterprises, including the resort, golf course and casino have created more than twelve hundred jobs, only 10 percent of which have gone to tribal members, Armijo wrote. The Hyatt Tamaya, described as New Mexico’s first “Phoenix style” resort, has generated immense publicity for the state and is drawing corporate meetings formerly held in Arizona, he said.
Armijo’s letter did not address the specifics of the controversy surrounding the loan proposal-related controversy.
Photo by: —Bill Diven
Commissioner Damon Ely and county attorney David Mathews listen while election managre Eddie Gutierrez reads the results of a paper ballot he just opened.
County clerk's office struggles through another election
Sandoval County Commissioners met on September 24 as the county canvassing board to supervise the opening of three ballot boxes. Keys to the boxes had been inadvertently locked inside the boxes, and bolt cutters were required to cut the locks. Errors were also made in transposing the vote count, so the results of the September 23 special election were in question.
Several of the commissioners expressed anger and disbelief that the clerk's office had botched another election, with errors similar to those committed in last year's general election. They exchanged heated accusations of incompetence and partisan politics with county clerk Victoria Dunlap. A meeting was scheduled for the following week to determine whether an outside audit of the elections bureau or outside election management was needed.
Election manager Eddie Gutierrez told the commissioners that an accurate count of the votes is protected by a triple audit required by the state, and that the results were not yet official. Statewide, the votes remained closely split during the week following the special election, and the outcome of a constitutional amendment that would allow funds from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund to be used for schools remained in question. Errors and irregularities in other elections bureaus throughout the state further obscured the results. Backing for the amendment was split along party lines.
At another meeting of the canvassing board held on September 26, Dunlap had another bitter confrontation with board members, but in the end the canvassing was completed and the vote count was sent to the Secretary of State. The unofficial results showed both questions passing.
Dunlap did not return calls from the Signpost. County spokesman Gayland Bryant said that the problem with the clerk's office is not a partisan issue, "Both parties are trying to restore confidence in the election process. We used to take pride that the numbers from our elections were out early and accurately. Now we're the butt of jokes at election time."
Bernalillo town government faces adversity
Bernalillo town leaders huddled in private for two and a half hours, with a major item on the agenda being suspended police chief Ramon Montijo.
No one emerging from the September 26 closed session would reveal details of the discussions, but by late afternoon town manager Les Swindle and mayor Charles Aguilar had faxed a letter to Montijo telling him he had until noon Tuesday, September 30, to resign or be fired.
A previous attempt by Aguilar to suspend and then fire Montijo failed in June when the town council voted to reinstate him.
Swindle relieved Montijo from duty on August 15 for alleged negligence and insubordination. Montijo denied the accusations and has been on paid leave since then.
The closed session was a workshop for commissioners, and Montijo was not invited, according to Swindle. “This is not the end game; it’s part of the process to get there,” he said before the meeting.
At Signpost deadline, Swindle said his recommendation to force Montijo out was made later in the day and was not discussed in the closed session.
In addition to the mayor and the four town councilors, Sandoval County attorney David Mathews was present acting as legal counsel during the private session in the absence of town attorney George Perez. Also attending were the town’s contract auditor, C. Jack Emmons, and law-enforcement consultants Fred Radosevich and Mark Radosevich of FKR Consulting.
Swindle said the meeting covered more than just the police department and that Emmons has been looking at possible financial irregularities. FKR was hired August 18 to study the operation and management of the police department, he said.
Neither Emmons nor the Radosevich brothers would comment after nearly ninety minutes with Swindle and the council. Swindle said their final reports would be made later and be released to the public after being presented to the town council.
Montijo stirred controversy soon after his arrival in April when, by his account, he ordered an inventory of department property and evidence that turned up irregularities. That led to outside investigations by the Rio Rancho Police Department, the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“I’d like to finish what I started and leave on my own terms,” Montijo told the Signpost before the meeting. He also questioned why he was suspended over administrative issues while officers subject to a criminal investigation remain on duty.
Montijo could not be reached for comment on the second attempt to fire him.
Investigations of the police department have not produced any criminal charges. Swindle said the federal inquiry found no impropriety in the handling of a machine gun given to a deputy sheriff for repair.
However, three issues remain unresolved: the source of a laptop computer from Sandia National Laboratories that one Bernalillo officer traded to another for a rifle, a possible civil-rights violation, and a February burglary at Bernalillo High School in which a $2,000 computer was taken from the computer club. The FBI is investigating the trail of the laptop and the civil-rights issue.
District attorney Lemuel Martinez said his staff still is reviewing evidence of the high school burglary compiled by a Rio Rancho police detective. Depending on the outcome of that review, the case could be presented to a grand jury to determine what, if any, charges should be filed, he told the Signpost.
News reports and Montijo have identified sergeant Mark Aragon as the officer who moved into a mobile home on the school grounds after an earlier break-in at the school. Aragon had a master key to school buildings and permission to use a club computer, but only when the club coordinator was present.
Tom English, Aragon’s attorney, told the Albuquerque Journal the investigation of Aragon had never been justified. English did not respond to a Signpost request for further comment.
The Rio Rancho Police Department case report, released to the Signpost with the names of potential suspects blacked out, alleges:
- The Bernalillo Police Department failed to destroy confiscated weapons despite orders to do so.
- A nine-millimeter pistol seized as evidence in Bernalillo in 2001 turned up the next year in a police investigation in California.
- Two Bernalillo officers and a Sandoval deputy committed “clear violations” during their possession and transfer of the machine gun, although their apparent lack of criminal intent precludes federal prosecution. The source of the weapon remains unknown, and it likely will be destroyed.
- An officer found a missing digital camera in a department file drawer that had been searched the previous day.
- The officer called to investigate the high school burglary started to write a crime report naming another officer as a suspect.
Critics of the town administration who protested Montijo’s first suspension are now using state audits of town finances in an attempt to oust Aguilar from office. According to former mayoral candidate Cecilia “Kiki” Trujillo, the town has not had a satisfactory audit in the past eleven years and in two of those years failed to report to the state at all.
Allegations of negligence and malfeasance have been sent to state finance officials and the secretary of state, she said, adding that one councilor has charged her allegations are slanderous.
“When you were a kid in school and got your report card, did you tell your teacher those are slanderous allegations?” she said. “[The audits are] a report card to the public on what they are doing with our taxes.”
Audit reports for 1998 through 2002 posted on-line by the state auditor show that in four of those years, the town’s numbers were in such disarray no opinion could be offered as to their validity. In the fifth year, the town failed to submit an audit for review.
Swindle said Ida Fierro, the town treasurer hired two years ago, has been doing significant work with contract accountants to straighten out the books. The town is hoping for a clean audit this year, Fierro said.
In September the state approved the town’s 2003-04 budget and complimented the town on its overall financial health. However the state also warned that continued dipping into cash reserves, particularly to subsidize the ambulance service, could lead to a shortfall in a few years.
Town officials said they are in discussions with the county and other government agencies about a tax system to support and expand ambulance services.
Photo by: —B. Belknap
The ghost town of Cabezón
Historical society brings ghost towns to life
In October the Sandoval County Historical Society will continue its series on Sandoval County ghost towns. On October 5 at 3:00 p.m. at the DeLavy House, SCHS will present programs and exhibits on San Luis, Cabezón, Guadalupe, and Casa Salazar of the Rio Puerco. Speakers will be Geologist Dirk van Hart, whose interest is in relating geology to social history, and Nasario Garcia, noted author and professor emeritus at Highlands University.
On October 19 at 3:00 p.m. SCHS will take last month's well-attended program on Bland and Hagan, as well as the Rio Puerco program, to the Old San Ysidro Church in Corrales. Speakers will include van Hart, historic preservationist Terry Lamm, Bland researcher Nelson Welch, and Nasario Garcia.
The DeLavy House is just west of the Coronado Monument off US 550 in Bernalillo. For directions to the Old Church or for further information about the programs, call Martha Liebert at 867-2755.
Albuquerque teens charged with Placitas murder
On September 14, 2003, the Sandoval County Sheriff's Office was called to NM 165 just east of the Placitas exit from I-25, where a male subject had been found dead. The reporting person was a bicyclist who discovered the body in a ditch south of the highway. The victim, who was subsequently identified as Jerry Lopez, age forty-seven, appeared to have been stabbed and shot several times. The murder was suspected to be drug-related because a large amount of cocaine was found at the scene. Court documents state that a background check revealed that Lopez was a convicted drug dealer and frequently moved from house to house.
On September 19, two juveniles were found to be in possession of Lopez's Corvette The driver, Jamie V. Ruiz, age sixteen, was questioned and charged with possession of a stolen vehicle. Court documents state that Ruiz told SCSO investigators that on September 19 he was at the home of Edgar Rios, age sixteen, watching the pay-per-view DeLaHoya–Mosely fight with Rios and fourteen-year-old Sergio Roman. After the fight they called Jerry Lopez to order twenty dollars’ worth of cocaine. Ruiz stated that Roman told him that he planned to rob Lopez because Lopez always carried a lot of money. Furthermore, the documents state, Ruiz stated that he knew for a fact that Rios owned a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and Roman had a knife. Ruiz said that Lopez delivered the cocaine and subsequently left with Roman and Rios.
Ruiz told officers that when he next saw Roman two days later, he was driving the Corvette, but planned to burn it because Roman had stolen it from Lopez's house after he had killed him. Ruiz told investigators that he took the car at that point because he didn't want such a nice car to be destroyed. Court documents include the rest of Ruiz's statement, which tells in great detail the story of the murder as told to him by Rios and Roman, who he claims were members of the South Side Locos and had threatened to kill him if he told anyone about it.
On September 20, Rios and Roman were taken into custody. Court documents state that a search of their bedrooms produced a .45-caliber handgun, a knife, blood stained keys to Lopez's pickup, and shell casings similar to those found at the murder scene. Rios reportedly made the unsolicited and spontaneous statement, "I didn't pull the trigger."
On September 23, Ruiz and Rios were officially charged as adults with murder, armed robbery, burglary, and related charges. Roman will face the same charges in juvenile court.
Court documents allege that subsequent interviews with the defendants indicate that all three defendants were taken by Jerry Lopez to his house in Placitas to stay the night. The house is located at 22 Cuchillo de Oro, a remote road near the end of Camino de San Francisco, several miles north of the village of Placitas. After consuming a quantity of cocaine and hard liquor, the suspects demanded that Lopez take them home. Lopez agreed, saying that he had to get up early to visit his mother anyway. As they neared I-25 at Cable Drive in Lopez's truck, the investigation reports, Ruiz hit Lopez on the head with the pistol and Rios started stabbing him. Lopez managed to run from his truck, and cried out that he didn't have anything. The attack continued until Ruiz allegedly shot Lopez three times.
Court documents state that the suspects said that they returned to 22 Cuchillo de Oro in the truck, cleaned up from all the blood, and stole Lopez's Corvette. They then drove both stolen vehicles to an isolated area on the West Mesa, and burned the truck to destroy evidence. Ruiz retained possession of the Corvette and was ultimately stopped in Old Town in Albuquerque.