Incorporation of Rio Communities possible

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(Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series on the proposed incorporation of Rio Communities. Voters will make the decision on Jan. 8 whether the community will become the newest Valencia County municipality.)

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series on the proposed incorporation of Rio Communities. Voters will make the decision on Jan. 8 whether the community will become the newest Valencia County municipality.)

As the new year rushes towards us, members of one east side community are weighing their options and deciding which direction they want to take.

Julia Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Mark Gwinn, who heads the Rio Communities incorporation committee, says the No. 1 need for the area is public safety.

Shortly after 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of January 2012, Valencia County will know whether it has a new city in its midst.

For more than a year now, a core group of residents in the Rio Communities area have been working diligently to gather information, educate themselves, prepare for the unknown and convince their neighbors to seize the moment and take control of their own destiny.

With four failed attempts in the rear view mirror, residents east of the Rio Grande are once again contemplating stepping out on their own, free from the constraints and perceived failings of a cumbersome and unresponsive county government.

The proposed boundaries for the municipality are Sherrod Boulevard to the north, Military Road to the east, North Navajo Loop to the south, which changes to Rio Grande Stables when it crosses N.M. 304, and then west to the river. The western boundary follows the river all the way up to behind the Allsups on N.M. 47, where it ties back into Sherrod.

The area is 4,730 acres, contains about 5,000 people, La Merced Elementary School, the Family School, two parks — Timan and Del Fuego, Valencia County’s only golf course and country club, Tierra del Sol, three gas stations, a Family Dollar store, 64 acres once offered for a county hospital and more than 50 home-based businesses.

Most of the entire eastern half of the area is completely empty except for phantom roads on plats filed at the county clerk’s office and strange structures in the desert that appear to be corrals made entirely of old tires.

While incorporation efforts in the past obviously haven’t been successful, Mark Gwinn thinks the efforts of himself and the incorporation committee will pay off this time.

“This go around we’ve gotten a lot of information to the residents. We’ve been up-front with everyone about everything from the get go,” Gwinn said. “We’re not sugar-coating anything.”

And that missing layer of sweetness means acknowledging that there are a lot of details that will simply remain unknown until the incorporation actually happens.

“A lot of the numbers, we just don’t know. And we won’t know until after the vote,” he said. “Right now, the state is estimating what our revenues are going to be, but all we have is that estimate.”

The New Mexico Municipal League — a nonprofit, nonpartisan association whose member cities comprise 100 percent of the state’s incorporated municipalities — guides interested parties through the incorporation process, offering legal advice, helping with mapping and census numbers.

The league has estimated the proposed municipality’s revenues based on the information it can wrangle out of the state Taxation and Revenue Department on gross receipts taxes, franchise taxes and liquor and gas taxes.

“It’s not an easy thing to get to this point,” Gwinn said. “We had to go to the Municipal League and make our case, prove to the state that we have the ability to become a community and provide the legally necessary services to the resident.”

They also had to convince the city of Belen that, “while they couldn’t afford us, we could afford ourselves. It’s been hard. As we move forward, we are climbing the mountain in front of us. We got to the top and we are having the vote.

“Now the next one is in front of us. This is just the beginning.”

All the while, Gwinn and the incorporation committee members have been working with residents in the area to figure out what their needs and concerns are, so that the new government can meet them.

Gwinn said the No. 1 concern and need was public safety — faster response by law enforcement and better, stricter control of nuisance ordinances.

“We have a lot of auto burglaries, break ins, illegal dumping,” he said. “If we incorporate, we will have a municipal judge. And as much as I hate to say it, the revenue from fines and citations helps a community evolve.”

If the incorporation effort manages to capture a majority of the votes, then the next step is to elect a mayor, council and municipal judge. And as with any government comes support staff.

Gwinn is hoping the community’s own residents will become an integral part of a government that is for the people, by the people, of the people.

“There are key people within the community who can help us build and make things happen,” he said. “What each individual can bring will help make our new community successful.

“We’re not a community with deep roots. We got our start in 1964 when Horizon Land Company built the first house. We are the largest unincorporated community in the county, we are also a community without a voice. And we want to have one. The county doesn’t have the funds to support us, to help us. So it behooves us to help ourselves.”

Gwinn says the community, if it indeed does become a municipality, has no intention of cutting itself off from the county or the city of Belen. As a matter of fact, the new city may well have to look to the county for continued services after incorporation.

Services such as code enforcement, law enforcement, animal control and road maintenance will most likely continue in partnership with the county.

“None of this is going to happen over night. We know that,” Gwinn said. “The new mayor and council will need to make agreements to continue services as we get on our feet.”

Not only will a smaller geographic area, run by people who live right there, be able to keep tighter controls on things, Gwinn feels there will be more businesses interested in locating there.

“Right now, if a business wants to come into this area, they have to go to the county commission, which is five different people, with five different priorities, who all want that business in their district,” he said. “If we are incorporated, a business deals with us, just us.”

Even with all their room to grow inside the boundaries, Gwinn points out there are still a lot of people living in unincorporated southeast Valencia County.

“Additional businesses in a new city would act to keep a lot more money in the county, and not let it go to Bernalillo or Torrance,” he said.

After a career teaching history, Rio Communities resident Silvestre Saavedra decided to get involved in the incorporation effort and make history.

“I wanted to be a part of something that would change people’s lives,” Saavedra said. “There’s a new vision here.”

Part of that vision comes from the incorporation committee itself, Gwinn said. In the past, it has been made up of people mostly associated with RCA in some way.

“Some people, for whatever reason, don’t like the association,” Gwinn said. “I have kept the incorporation stuff separate from the Rio Communities Association. The people of the committee have a vision.”

Ironically, Gwinn is the RCA president.

“I look at the cities that recently incorporated — Peralta, Rio Rancho, Mountainair — and think, why can’t we?” Saavedra said, a resident of the area since 2005. “I’m not going to say we’re going to be the best, but we’re going to be the best we can be.

“The main thing is we want to give the residents a voice. If I can stand up and voice my opinion, I’m a happy man.”

The opportunity to express an opinion even extends to the name of the new town. Gwinn says it’s not going to default to Rio Communities. Part of the reason is the community of Chamesa on Manzano Expressway is also part of the proposed city.

“We’re not all Rio Communities or all Chamesa,” Gwinn said.

Two large sheets of paper hang on the wall of the RCA office, filled with proposed names — some are crossed off, some survived the cut. Those still standing include Rivers Edge, the lyrical Valle del Oro and Friendly.

The beauty and quiet of Chamesa brought Susan Campbell here 13 years ago.

“I stay here because of the beauty,” Campbell said. “But I’d sure like the safety and convenience a town can provide.”

Serving on the board of Chamesa’s home owner’s association, Campbell is very aware of the ongoing issues in the community, security being one of the biggest.

“I know Valencia County has a small force and can’t afford much bigger. A call for assistance from the county sheriff is a long wait,” she said.

Campbell said if the incorporation is successful, getting security improved and up and running is very important.

“I lived in a community of more than four million. I didn’t have to take near as many precautions as I do out here,” she said. “One woman was in the shower, and in broad daylight, a man came in through her kitchen window. Another woman, she and her son were at home, and someone hooked up to the trailer in their front drive and took off. The county sheriff is way overloaded, I understand. That doesn’t make you feel any safer.”

Other services are hard to get as well, Campbell says. She said the residents of Chamesa have had to save up and install their own speed bumps, as well as for someone to come out in the spring to knock down weeds. They have also purchased two live traps since there is a lot of stray animals that are dumped off in the area and little response from county animal control.

“Getting any kind of improvements is very difficult,” she said. “We need street lights out here, just a few.”

Campbell says she and the other residents understand that those improvements won’t appear instantly, if incorporation happens.

“We all know things are not going be done overnight. We understand that quite thoroughly,” she said. “But at least we know it’s more possible for it to happen than without incorporation. The street lights I mentioned? They are two or three years down the road. But we know eventually we will ask for and get them.

“There are a few things a town could do for its residents. I’m very much in favor of incorporation.”

About 15 miles to the south of what might turn into a new city of its own is the development of Tierra Grande. When the idea of incorporation started being bandied about, the administrator for the Tierra Grande Improvement Association took notice.

“I started out looking at the footprint: Did it include Tierra Grande?” asked Sue Moran. “It didn’t and I did a quick review of our residents and they didn’t want to be.”

Moran said Tierra Grande is a different kind of community than their neighbors to the north — with five acre minimums for their lots and only 145 homes, including Tierra Grande in an incorporation effort would skew the needed one person per acre ratio.

“Then I got to really like the committee members,” Moran said. “Nobody was looking like they were looking for political positions, personal gain. I listened to their stories. It was about having a voice, being represented. I’ve been to commission meetings and seen an almost dislike for this area.”

Moran said from what she could see, the only way for the residents of the area to be treated well was to do things themselves.

“If things don’t go well they only have themselves to blame,” she said. “I’ve always been a proponent of the underdog. I do believe they will succeed.”

Moran saw the prior incorporation efforts fail and said by making the footprint smaller and getting out and communicating with residents, the committee may well correct some of the errors of the past.

“This will only be a benefit for Tierra Grande. There will be a ripple effect of having good, strong neighbors,” she said. “If they bring in businesses — a restaurant, a pharmacy — my residents don’t have to go trudging 15 miles into Belen. In the long run, it benefits my members. I believe in their plan.”

Moran might be outside looking in and seeing a rosey picture, but at least one resident on the inside isn’t so sure incorporation is the right move.

Robert Sanders says he simply doesn’t have enough solid information about incorporation to be for or against the idea.

“I do think there are better ways than incorporation to address some of the issues in the area,” Sanders said.

A resident of 17 years, Sanders has an academic background in economics, and says he’s been trying to analyze the preliminary revenue and expense numbers the incorporation committee has made public.

“What appears to be missing, in looking at the budget is, you don’t look at just start up, day one, but the future,” he said. “Things change. It looks like they are relying on things like grants, which expire in a short period of time.”

Sanders pointed out that things such as the donated office space from Valley Improvement Association, elected officials serving for no salary and people volunteering at no cost to the municipality doesn’t go on forever.

“If you are looking to people serving at no cost, there is no way to know if you are correct with your assumptions,” Sanders said. “I think they have done a very good job providing information about the pluses, but not the negatives. It doesn’t give enough information to make an intelligent judgment.”

Sanders said he hasn’t heard much opinion expressed one way or another out in the community. But then he admits he hasn’t gone listening that much either.

“I did have one person express a real strong opinion. And it was adverse. They said they just can’t afford more,” he said. “I’m sure there are people who feel as strongly for it. There’s always the silent majority and who knows who that is.”

He also called Belen’s decision not to annex the area a “red flag.”

The argument that businesses will “flock” to the city doesn’t hold much sway over Sanders either.

“Let’s look at that assumption. There are empty spaces right now on Rio Communities Boulevard, there’s the old Tillery and spaces on (N.M.) 304. They’ll say that’s not in a city, look at Belen,” he said. “That’s another example of empty storefronts, unfortunately, and it’s on the interstate and a major rail line. They’ll say, ‘Well look at Los Lunas.’ Yes, they have been quite successful. It’s taken 20 years to get there.”


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