Belen official discourages RC annexation

........................................................................................................................................................................................

The city's primary economic advisor has strongly recommended that the council reject any ideas about annexing Rio Communities.

Steven Tomita, the director of planning and zoning and economic development chief, said annexing wouldn't be in the best interest of the city because of potentially high maintenance and operating expenses the city would likely incur.

Tomita also said that the overall uncertain economic outlook for the state and nation is a deterrent for the annexation.

Tomita issued his less-than-upbeat assessment during a recent council meeting after personally driving around Rio Communities and inspecting its roads, sewer lines and water facilities and analyzing the potential costs of providing police and fire protection to the residents.

Tomita's oral and written report on annexation cannot be good news for Rio Communities residents working to incorporate the area on the east bank of the Rio Grande into a town.

No members of the Rio Communities Association were present at the council meeting, but when contacted by telephone the next day, the group's president, Mark Gwinn, defended the drive for incorporation.

"We want to establish a voice throughout the county," Gwinn said. "We want to have a government that will listen to our community needs. We don't have that now."

The Rio Communities population base comes from all over the United States and is diverse and experienced enough to meet any incorporation challenge, he said. He added that the New Mexico Municipal League stands firmly behind the incorporation move, "100 percent."

The association submitted a formal letter to Belen on Sept. 8 asking that incorporation be allowed. Under state law, Belen's permission is required because of its close proximity to Rio Communities.

One resident of Rio Communities, who refers to herself as neutral on the issue of incorporation, Jan Johnson, said proponents need to present solid figures for projected revenue, start-up costs and the ongoing expenditures of running a city.

"I'm still neutral, but I would like to have some hard information in writing on which to make a decision," Johnson said. "So far, the association hasn't disseminated any good information."

Tomita told the counselors that should proponents of incorporation fail to get a green light from the area's voters in an up-or-down election planned for January, they could then either seek annexation by Belen or prove "conclusively" that Belen could not provide municipal services and that Rio Communities could.

Tomita said it appears that the Rio Communities Association is using unreliable and perhaps outdated data regarding the proposed areas economic sustainability, figures that paint an overly rosy picture of projected revenues and an unrealistic forecast of the costs of running the would-be municipality.

Under the heading "Summary of Estimated Rio Communities City Budget," the association's website lists anticipated general fund revenues of $488,600 and expenditures of $353,000.

Gwinn said there is a "strong sense" that the actual amounts will be 2-to-3 percent higher, adding there is no way anyone can say with certainty how much money will be available for the town "until we become a town." But, he conceded, the town will "have to operate under the county's wing for a while."

An annexation analysis performed in 2004 concluded that revenues would range between $275,000 and $325,000.

"With the economic downturn that occurred after 2004, it is very doubtful that these revenue numbers have increased," Tomita told the council.

Moreover, in light of vacancies in retail and industrial facilities, the revenue numbers have probably decreased, he said.

Meanwhile, the 2004 analysis predicted costs to Belen following annexation at that time would range from $350,000 to $1,550,000. The larger figure was the more reasonable, Tomita said, given the upgrade in police services desired by residents.

The greatest benefit to Belen of annexation, back in 2004, would have been "the ability of the city to plan for and control an area that could significantly impact the future development of Belen," Tomita said.

However, the 2004 study did not consider the short- and long-term impacts on Belen of maintaining streets and utilities in Rio Communities.

His inspection of the area found that "streets have deteriorated substantially," Tomita said, adding that he observed "surface failure … storm water ponding and asphalt failure."

His visual inspection also led him to believe that the thickness of asphalt in Rio Communities does not measure up to Belen standards.

"If Rio Communities was annexed, there would be significant street repairs and street completion needed (in the more immediate short term) and overall street re-paving in the next couple of years," Tomita wrote in his report.

He also found deficiencies in the Rio Communities sewer system: The "treatment plant has aged significantly and is not in as good condition as the city of Belen's plant."

He said that even though the system is privately owned, Belen's City Hall would still receive customer complaints. Moreover, he said, it is not a good situation for a private utility system to be located within a municipality.

He recalled that Albuquerque had to take over a privately owned system on the West Mesa and "after overcoming many issues, finally purchased the system at considerable cost." Belen would face the same issue if it were to annex Rio Communities, he said.

Gwinn countered by saying that the company that owns and operates the sewage system recently announced an 8 percent increase in user fees, at least some of which would be applied to maintenance.

The Rio Communities water system is also privately owned. The plant itself appears to be in good working order, Tomita said, but the same cannot be said for the pipes, "due to the type of materials the waterlines are made from."

Looking ahead and keeping the current economic uncertainty in mind, he concluded, "this is not the best time for consideration for incorporations and annexations."

The councilors seemed almost dumbstruck by his analysis. Just a few short weeks ago, they appeared to favor annexation over incorporation. They will vote at Monday's meeting on the issue of granting permission for incorporation.

"We'll be a town," Gwinn. "We feel totally opposite of what Steve Tomita put out."

Gwinn said the group has spoken with several economic advisors who dismissed the Belen government as "inept" and a flawed economic partner. "Belen can't afford annexation until they get their own house cleaned," he said.

Of course the new town would face challenges, he added, but because the population is less than 10,000, Rio Communities would be eligible for state and federal rural community grants.

Rio Communities, as a town, will prove to be "very stable and efficient," he said. The new town's initial focus would be on developing a police department, he said. Fire protection services, currently provided by the state, are efficient and more than adequate.

"Our government will have a strong chance of being free of the county in a couple of years," Gwinn said. But he acknowledged that "a lot of it won't happen overnight."

Johnson, however, predicted that were the election held today, the measure would go down in defeat. She said she hasn't found anyone outside of the association who would vote "yes" without first "getting a solid set of facts."

She would vote "no," she said, but "I could be convinced to vote 'yes' if somebody builds a case."

Johnson said earlier attempts at incorporation were voted down "because the people of Rio Communities have never been convinced there's a benefit that would incur to the residents. That could be an incorrect perception, but it's pretty consistent, and nobody's been able to convince us otherwise."

She described association members as "very enthusiastic but very naïve."

In other business, the council:

• Voted unanimously to award a contract to demolish two vacant structures, the old Freeway Inn at 324 South Main St., and a burned house at 509 South 13th Street.

The demolition will be done by PDCO Inc. of Rio Communities for $64,534. Workers will begin tearing down the house while asbestos is removed from the Freeway Inn. That will cost the city another $1,550, according to Deputy Clerk Leona Vigil.

• Awarded praise and recognition in the form of a proclamation to Edwin and Regina Griego, the couple that organized a huge neighborhood clean-up effort last month.

• Adopted the International Property Maintenance Code Handbook.

• Heard reports from the safety department's risk manager, Lenore Pena, and Marcia Amaro, the utilities department supervisor.