VIA’s role after Rio Communities incorporation

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(This is the fourth and final 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.)

(This is the fourth and final 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.)

In three days, the waiting will be over. Shortly after the polls close at 7 p.m., the nearly 5,000 residents in the Rio Communities and Chamesa subdivision east of the Rio Grande will know whether they live in a new municipality.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Boasting a gazebo, racquetball courts and a small playground, Timan Park in Rio Communities will be deeded over to the new municipality from the Valley Improvement Association if, on Jan. 8, voters decide to incorporate. The park and other common areas belong to VIA, headed by CEO Paul Baca, pictured above.

If the incorporation vote is successful and a new town is indeed formed, the next steps come fast and furious — within six months.

An election for municipal offices has to be declared and held and the governing body has to jump in head first into running a city.

A place to hold meetings has to be found, courtroom space set up, policies, procedures and laws drafted, presented to the public and adopted. Not to mention securing funding to pay for everything from stamps to a clerk, contracting for services the new town needs if it doesn’t have the immediate ability to provide them, and somehow finding the time to plan for the future.

For decades, the Valley Improvement Association has handled many services the county was unable to deliver. The association took care of the upkeep of the parks and common areas around the community, paved roads, expanded the water and sewer systems, put in bike paths and worked to bring in industry and development.

Now those halcyon days are over and VIA is looking to its own future. With assessment revenues falling off rapidly over the recent years, association CEO Paul Baca says the company simply cannot offer the services it once provided.

Not to mention, most of the older areas of development — the area looking to incorporate — never paid assessments to begin with, relying on the assessments paid by other member owners to take care of the necessities.

“We used to pay for things like the street lights, the upkeep of the parks. At one time, we housed a post office branch, an office for the volunteer sheriff’s department and funded a youth recreation program,” Baca said. “Our assessments are at about an eighth of what they used to be, and by 2017, the assessment revenue will be nothing.”

By providing those amenities, Baca said VIA was carrying on with the old Horizon Land Company philosophy of encouraging development by doing things such as donating land for schools and community centers and courting businesses for the Rio Grande Industrial Park.

And with assessments drying up quickly, Baca said VIA is finding itself more and more in the position of only being able to offer assistance in the form of land donations and “technical support” such as maps, plat histories and institutional knowledge.

“As we go forward, it’s going to be up to all the communities to say, ‘OK, who’s going to pick up slack that VIA was doing,’” he said.

If the incorporation is successful, Baca said VIA is willing to deed over the two parks, Timan and Del Fuego, and any common areas to the new city. And with that good will gesture comes some expense.

Last year, between the parks in the proposed area of incorporation, and the park in the Las Maravillas subdivision, Baca said VIA laid out nearly $43,000 in water charges and upkeep.

“The municipality will have to pay for the water and any level of maintenance or improvement it wants to fund,” he said.

The common areas threaded throughout the communities are a bit tricky, Baca said. The areas are owned by VIA and the uses can be anything from walking paths to a small park. They act as a buffer area between clusters of houses, running from one street over the next parallel one.

Often tree-lined, the common areas give access to parks and the Tierra del Sol golf course in some places.

The areas are spread out through the area on both sides of N.M. 47. Baca points out that like VIA, if they become the property of a municipality, they also become the responsibility of the entity — which means paying homeowners for broken fences due to falling tree limbs and in some cases, figuring out just who is responsible.

“Over by the golf course, the area on one side of the street is ours, on the other, it’s not,” Baca said. “In some places, we’re not sure whose it is.”

The association is also willing to offer the new municipality office space for a paltry $1 a year, until it gets up and running, Baca said.

If the incorporation happens, he said VIA won’t really have a role in running the city — after all, it is technically a business like any other.

“As far as the incorporation goes, we haven’t played a role at all. I think the community needs to take control of its own destiny, have a voice,” Baca said. “People don’t want their taxes to go up, but those same people complain they don’t have adequate police protection. Again, if they want additional services, it’s up to the community to decide.

“I live in Belen. We have high property taxes, but we have police protection. And I have a municipality looking after me and the future of the community. Because the county is so large, it’s resources are so limited. It’s difficult to deliver services to the entire community. As a business person, I feel like they have a lot of potential here.”

Baca said the relationships VIA has helped build over the years, such as with the Mid-Region Council of Governments and the state municipal league, will also be in place for a fledgling city to rely upon.

“And while the assessment revenues are decreasing, and some areas have never paid assessments, there are areas where covenants are still in place and we can assist there,” he said. “How far we can go with that, I don’t know though.”

The association isn’t the only group that may see some changes come its way if the incorporation happens.

The Rio Communities Association, a non-profit formed in 1963, was organized to support the health, safety and well-being of the neighborhoods east of the river.

Mark Gwinn is the current RCA president and the president of the incorporation project.

The community is broken up into districts and there is a volunteer representative from each area. From those volunteers, a board of officers is elected.

“As president of RCA, I have encouraged our elected body to transition into the chamber of commerce the community will need after incorporation,” Gwinn said. “I would like to see RCA coordinating with the businesses we have here and bringing new businesses in. For a long time, we’ve been an educational body. Education is great, but there comes a time when you have to walk the walk.”

Severing ties with the county may prove to be a slow process and those supporting the incorporation acknowledge that. And the former and current mayors of the town of Peralta spoke with first hand knowledge about just how slowly the wheels of independence grind.

Peralta incorporated officially in March 2007. Just this year, it is taking the final steps to train and hire its own animal control and code enforcement officers.

As the new municipality becomes more and more independent — again assuming incorporation is successful — Valencia County Manager Bruce Swingle said the county will continue services and support to the residents.

“We haven’t had any formal discussions with anyone from Rio Communities regarding services, but once they are incorporated, they will have the green light and we will work with them in terms of what they are going to need for services,” Swingle said.

The county does have a payment schedule in place for other entities to contract for services such as road maintenance, code enforcement and animal control, Swingle said, and it will be a policy decision by the commissioners as to what the final charges will be.

“It will be up to the governing body of Rio Communities to determine what services they want to have,” he said. “And the commission will have to look at how expensive that may be and decide whether to transfer that expense to Rio Communities of not. It is their call.”

One of the benefits touted by Gwinn and others who favor incorporation will be the redirection of gross receipts taxes back to the municipality for its use.

Looking at the formula used by the municipal league to help determine the estimated budget for the new town, Swingle said the county would see a decrease in GRT revenue of about $500,000, while property tax revenues would be unaffected.

“We will support them in any way we can,” Swingle said. “What they need is up to the community.”


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