Public safety is the No. 1 priority

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

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

Few people would disagree that more services and better services is a bad thing.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Valencia County Sheriff Louis Burkhard knows the expense and hard work necessary to create a police force from scratch. If Rio Communities is successful in incorporating, the sheriff says he and his office will help as much as possible.

For the people of Rio Communities, there are two specific services they would like to see beefed up — law enforcement and code enforcement.

As the date for the incorporation election date draws closer, the nearly 5,000 people will have to consider just what it may cost to have the things they want.

Mark Gwinn, the chairman of the Rio Communities Incorporation Project, said the community’s 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,” Gwinn 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.”

And no one is arguing that the situation is anything other than what Gwinn represents.

“I understand their frustration,” said Valencia County Sheriff Louis Burkhard.

With five deputies and a sergeant trying to cover 1,458 square miles of county during any given shift, the sheriff full well knows the limitations of his force.

“And we currently have more deputies in the field than we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “I wish them success, and we will certainly help them as much as we can, but I think they are in for a reality check.”

Creating and maintaining a quality police department could very well be the most expensive undertaking of any municipality, said Burkhard, who, in 2007, was elected Peralta’s first municipal judge.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Looking for code violations and answering complaints, Valencia County Code Enforcement Officer Sonny Vega patrols Rio Communities one street at a time. During 2012, Vega opened 30 cases in Rio Communities and cleared 24.

“As a city, you have to provide police and fire protection, a court and several other public services,” he said. “When Peralta incorporated, they looked at forming their own law enforcement department, but found it to be cost prohibitive.”

Instead, the town of Peralta, which successfully incorporated in 2007, contracts with its neighbor, the village of Bosque Farms, for police protection. The town pays Bosque Farms $180,000 a year for 24/7 coverage.

“It’s a question of what do you want. Are you looking at 24/7 coverage? If that’s the case, I’ve estimated you need a minimum of seven patrol officers and a chief or administrator,” Burkhard said.

Assuming the national average of $100,000 per department employee holds true, to start up an eight-person police force would be $800,000, the sheriff said.

Burkhard said there are salaries and benefits to be accounted for, plus the cost of vehicles, maintenance of a fleet as well as the expense of consumables, such as gas and tires.

There is the need for office space so members of the public can walk in and interact with their police department, he said, as well as the expense of an evidence room and someone to manage it.

And if a community has a police force, those officers have to be dispatched to calls somehow.

Right now, that is through the Valencia County Regional Dispatch Center. Currently, all government agencies that are dispatched through the center pay for the service based on the number of calls for service the center receives.

Since Peralta contracts with Bosque Farms for law enforcement services, those calls are billed to the village. They are paid and Peralta has agreed to reimburse the village for up to $21,000 in dispatch fees this year.

“There’s training, overtime, equipment — the list goes on and on,” Burkhard said.

And with law enforcement comes the inevitable legal entanglements.

“The biggest liabilities in law enforcement are evidence and policy,” the sheriff said.

While the Rio Communities area could partner with the neighboring city of Belen for police protection while it builds its own department, nothing can be done or negotiated until incorporation actually happens.

Belen city officials did consider annexing Rio Communities, but ultimately decided against it.

At an October Belen City Council meeting, the city’s Director of Planning and Zoning and Economic Development Chief Steven Tomita urged councilors to forgo annexing the community into Belen at this time.

Tomita said the responsibilities and costs of undertaking the community would weigh down the city further than it could handle.

Burkhard also has first-hand experience in helping to turn a department around. When he was the police chief in Bosque Farms, there were six officers and a “decrepit fleet,” he said. When he left, the village was up to 10 officers and had started making strides in replacing worn out equipment.

“Even with 10 officers, it was still difficult,” he said. “When you look at things like overtime, you can budget for it but if there is a major incident — a murder or large scale accident — you have to have officers there around the clock. You have to be prepared for that.”

And while the county may be willing to partner with a new community and contract for law enforcement, Burkhard says the coverage might not be much more than what they already have.

“We only have so many officers. And even if they could help enough to pay for two more officers, they have to remember that if they call for back-up, who knows where our officers will be and have to come from,” he said. “We still will have the rest of the county to deal with.”

A fledgling department can make some headway with grants and volunteers, Burkhard said, but there are drawbacks.

A force of volunteer officers has to be overseen by a certified officer, who will most likely want to be paid.

There are grants for funding law enforcement equipment and even to pay officers’ salaries, but it takes time and effort to find and apply for them.

“Then you need someone to administer them, filling out the paperwork and reports that need to go back,” he said. “It needs constant attention.”

Certified officers spend nearly a year in the training academy, Burkhard said, and even once they are certified, they still have to maintain their certification and get speciality training in areas such as narcotics to be effective officers.

“Most of the criminal activity in the area is property crimes. And most of that activity is directly associated with drug use,” he said. “Any time an officer works narcotics, we turn over a lot of property crimes. We will certainly help as much as we can. I’m not trying to be negative, just realistic.”

Since 2008, Sonny Vega has been the county code enforcement officer responsible for patrolling most of the eastern side of the county, with the exception of El Cerro and Meadow Lake. His territory includes the proposed incorporation area.

After 23 years working in the collections department of Public Service Company of New Mexico, irate property owners going toe-to-tow with him over weeds and junked cars isn’t really a big deal.

“I just do my job,” Vega says with a shrug.

Every Monday, he starts in the north and begins to work his way toward the county line. Rio Communities is Wednesdays and Thursdays.

As he drives through the communities, he has gotten to know the “problem areas.” He is also answering complaints on the fly, changing course as residents call in issues.

“For the most part, I know the areas that don’t have to be constantly watched. I know where the problems are,” Vega said. “In the area that is looking at incorporating, the area to the east is all open and there is a lot of illegal dumping.”

Other common issues in the area include people just not keeping up their property, “letting things get crazy,” he said.

For a while, there was a spurt of people restoring cars. They would buy a project vehicle, then a car to salvage parts off. Then it was another car with a usable bumper and a third with a good transmission. Pretty soon it became a bunch of “to its,” Vega said.

“As in, I’ll get around ‘to it’ eventually,” he said, laughing. “If you have one or two cars you’re getting parts off, we can do that, but you’re not going to stockpile them.”

While weeds, excess noise and dust, derelict cars and trash fall under the purview of code enforcement and county ordinances, County Community Development Director Jacobo Martinez said sometimes his office fields calls that are covenant issues.

Sometimes people don’t understand the division between the two sets of rules, he said.

The county ordinances stipulate how tall a fence can be, but not what materials it needs to be built from, he said, for instance.

Other times, the county ordinances seem to be a little vague.

Martinez said they get frequent complaints about a property on Riggs Street about horses being kept on the property.

“A lot of people in the community view this as an agricultural area. It’s zoned suburban residential, which doesn’t say you can have livestock, but it doesn’t say you cannot,” Martinez said. “But livestock is against the covenants. Covenants are between neighbors, and we don’t enforce them.”

During meetings about incorporation, some residents asked if a new city could enforce covenants. Martinez said that is certainly something a new municipality could look at as it is putting together zoning laws.

In zoning, there are typically two different approaches — a land-use based or euclidean model, such as the county, or a design based, Martinez said.

“An example of design-based zoning would be an area that has an historic overlay zone, where the building facades have to look a certain way,” he said. “That’s how some municipalities zone out certain types of businesses. Fast food restaurants, big box stores usually have a standard set of plans and architectural designs, signs and facades.

If you have design-based zoning, and they don’t have the right appearance, it might be cost prohibitive to redesign a building for just one town.

“It can also mean that if a local member wants to start a business, they may have to build their own space,” he said. “For instance, a lot of restaurants begin in a storefront. If they have to have a certain design, it might not happen.”

How stringent a municipality’s zoning and nuisance laws are is up to the governing body, Martinez said, but they do have to comply with the federal Fair Housing Act and can’t be discriminatory.

“Your public nuisance laws, you can write them very strict. If weeds are a problem, you can say nothing higher than four inches,” he said. “Your governing body is going to have a vision and will really determine a lot with your ordinances on nuisances and zoning.”

If incorporation is successful, Martinez said the county would continue to help the new town however it could as they decide what they want in the future.

And as the man on the street, dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, Vega urged the new town to educate the public once it is established.

“It’s important to educate the public. You have to tell them what is expected and what the consequences are,” he said. “You need to help them realize you are working with them, not against them.”


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