County to pay for LM street lights

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County commissioners may have opened a can of worms by agreeing to foot the maintenance and electric bills for 25 street lights in an east-side subdivision.

Planning and Zoning Community Services Director Jacobo Martinez said residents of Las Maravillas Units II and III made the request after the Valley Improvement Association ceased maintenance and turned off the power to the lights earlier this year.

The cessation of services was due to the May 2012 settlement of a 2010 lawsuit initiated by VIA after residents in the units attempted to break away from the VIA homeowners association, and establish one of their own — the Good Neighbor Association.

Martinez said after contacting PNM, the company offered a $140 a month flat rate fee for power and minor maintenance to the lights.

"They would take care of lamp replacement and the photo cells," Martinez said. "But that doesn't include the repair of wiring or replacing a pole if it was knocked down."

The annual total of the PNM contract for Units II and III would cost the county $1,680, an unbudgeted expense, Martinez said.

For comparison, in 2011 and 2012, the county spent $43,000 for repairs of street lights it is responsible for maintaining.

Rick Wilson, the director for GNA and resident of Las Maravillas since 1996, said the power has been off to the lights since the group took over as the homeowners association for the two units.

"This is a public safety issue that is huge and growing," Wilson said. "We have nearly 100 children in the area, people who like to walk and run. We risk someone getting injured or killed."

He added that dues previously paid to VIA were used to pay for the maintenance of and electricity for the street lights.

The two units have paid about $3.5 million in taxes since their inception and paid entirely for their own infrastructure, Wilson said.

"We have asked for very little in the 16 years of our existence," he said. "We have found nowhere else that the county doesn't pay for public street lights."

Commissioner Mary Andersen asked, "Who is supposed to pay the light bill?"

Wilson said throughout the county, it is the county that pays.

"Only in VIA is it paid through dues," he said.

Commissioner Donald Holliday asked if when homeowners bought their properties, was it part of the agreement with the HOA that the dues would pay for certain amenities.

Wilson said the HOA agreement spelled out many things the dues would pay for, such as common areas and streets, but lights were "conspicuously left out."

He continued, saying GNA was a small organization and taking on the burden of the street lights would be "cost prohibitive."

Commissioner Ron Gentry, who represents Las Maravillas, said this was a unique situation.

"It really is a public safety issue, and since the fee that was used to pay for this is now gone, I would make the motion to accept this and work it out in the budget," Gentry said. "If you look at the taxes paid on those homes versus how much we will spend on Las Maravillas, it's justified."

Commissioner Georgia Otero-Kirkham asked Wilson if GNA collected fees and if so, what the money was used for.

Wilson said it did and the funds went to things such as maintenance of common areas and insurance.

"All the things an HOA does," he said.

He said the association anticipates collecting about $28,000 in annual dues.

According to information on the GNA's website, www.lasmaravillas.org, dues are $93 per year per home. There are an estimated 300 houses in Units II and III.

Otero-Kirkham asked if the county maintained street lights in other subdivisions in the county.

Martinez said there were contracts with the state Department of Transportation to pay for lighting maintenance at certain intersections, but "no other subdivision at this point."

"Do you think others would come to us is we approve this? Will, say, Cypress Gardens want the same thing?" Otero-Kirkham asked.

"It is possible," Martinez said. "I don't have a good feel for that."

Holliday said he was willing to support Gentry's motion if he would amend it to specify only Units II and III.

Finance Director Nick Telles asked if the HOA was going to pay the county for the additional services.

"It should come from existing tax dollars," Wilson said.

Telles asked if the expense was budgeted, and Martinez reiterated that it was not.

Saying she couldn't take issue with the fact that having the street lights without power was a public safety issue, Andersen said she was "extremely concerned about setting a precedent down stream.

"I would like to see a more formal evaluation of the cost before we go forward," Andersen said. "Given the condition of our cash flow, $140 a month doesn't sound like much, but I'm not sure we have all the information. But I don't want to vote against it."

Gentry amended his motion to include only Units II and III, since Unit I still has power, and Holliday seconded the motion.

The final vote, 4-1, was greeted by applause from the Las Maravillas residents in attendance. Andersen cast the sole "no" vote."

In the summer of 2009, Jake Forest, a resident and property owner in Las Maravillas Unit III since 2007, decided enough was enough after what he says were three years of unresponsiveness from VIA over infrastructure issues in his part of the development.

Forest says in addition to cosmetic issues, there was erosion so extensive it has exposed the footings to some houses, in addition to leaning light poles and badly pitted concrete curbs.

Forest formed the Good Neighborhood Association, Inc., as a domestic nonprofit with the state on July 13, 2009.

In February 2010, VIA took legal action to clarify what it says was "confusion" over the matter.

Then VIA President Bob Davey said the company asked its attorneys to prepare a court filing to answer some questions, mostly pertaining to how VIA should legally end its responsibilities to the homeowners for such things as upkeep of parks and street lights.

In February, the two parties discussed a settlement that resulted in VIA turning over Units II and III on five parcels of land to GNA, as well as the community areas, RV storage, a drainage pond, oil, gas and mineral rights, and VIA agreeing to pay any back property taxes on properties in the two units.

The settlement also offered Forest $150,000 for the purchase of his home and a cash settlement.

After the May 18 court order, transferring the two units to GNA, Forest said he hated injustice, and "fought from the stance that those in power should actually do good. I hate it when they do bad or are indifferent."

Even though he was leaving the community, Forest said what he started would be finished.

According to the Aug. 4 minutes of the GNA monthly meeting, Forest's involvement with GNA is "restricted to past issues involving the litigation; he is not involved in any current or future GNA activities."

The GNA has a consultant contract with him, for $1 per month, to advise and work with the board on finalizing the past legal issues he was involved with.

Even though Forest was "pumped" about the resolution of three years of litigation, the final settlement has not been approved by VIA's board of directors, according to VIA CEO and President Paul Baca.

There are still two minor issues to come to agreement over — what common area fencing VIA is responsible for rebuilding and the exact boundaries of one of the common areas.

Baca said GNA is asking that all fences abutting public areas be replaced by VIA, even those that are part of a fence around a residence.

And a piece of common area near Unit I is fully in Unit II, according to its legal description, Baca said, but county records and maps show it extending into Unit I.

Those two issues will have to be resolved before the VIA board finalizes the settlement with GNA and Forest, Baca said.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.