County transfers fire station to Rio Communities

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If all goes as planned, in about three months, the city of Rio Communities will take possession of the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department, lock, stock and bunker gear.

In a unanimous decision last Wednesday, Valencia County commissioners agreed to turn over the fire district, including the land it sits on and all the department's apparatus and equipment to the newly formed city.

Commissioner Lawrence Romero sponsored the agenda item and made a motion to approve the resolution that will delegate authority to Valencia County Manager Jeff Condrey to effect the transfer.

Romero said he wanted to "get the ball rolling" on the transfer. Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon seconded the motion.

Saying there were "many, many issues that need to be addressed," Commission Chairman Charles Eaton said while he was not against the transfer of the station to the municipality, he didn't think this was the right time.

"I just don't think at this time, the municipality has the administrative oversight needed to handle the responsibility," said Eaton. "When I spoke to the state fire marshal's office, their concern was whether the municipality could faithfully administer state fire funds."

Eaton, the former county fire chief, said there were still a lot of questions to be answered, including whether the fire district boundaries would need to be redrawn and what the fate of the Tierra Grande station would be.

The Rio Grande Estates Fire District covers 410 square miles. It stretches from Manzano Expressway south down N.M. 47 and N.M. 304.

The district takes in the community of Tierra Grande in the southeast part of the county, where a second main station is located. There is also a main station within the city limits of Rio Communities.

In an interview after the meeting, Rio Communities Mayor Mark Gwinn said it was his understanding, after talking with the state fire marshal and former RGE Fire Chief L.E. Rubin, that the Tierra Grande station would be transferred to the city, along with the station in Rio Communities.

"When Horizon built the two stations, from what I've been told, (the two stations) was always to stay intact in support of each other," Gwinn said.

He added that the Tierra Grande Homeowners Association actually owns the southern station and it will be deeded over to the county and then transferred to the city.

"It's all part of the same district," he said.

And the district will stay the same, Gwinn said, with some minor tweaking of the boundaries to bring in the community of Chamisa, La Merced Elementary School and two churches along Manzano Expressway. That area is currently part of the Tomé/Adelino Fire Department district.

The RGE district's eastern boundary right now goes to the crest of the llano, just west of the Chamisa subdivision that is part of the city. The district goes west across the river, taking in the area along Jarales, Jaramillo and Maestas roads, in the unincorporated part of the county, south of the city of Belen.

"We don't want to change the fire district except to make sure all the city is in District 1," Gwinn said. "Way back when, Rio Grande Estates got this fire department all under one umbrella. We don't want to change that — it's our heritage, our history. Those folks have been very supportive in the formation of this community. The fire department didn't become ISO 5 over night. It took a lot of work in the community."

The Insurance Service Office rates a fire department on its ability to fight structure fires, and in turn, sells that information to insurance companies. The rating an area receives affects insurance premiums.

Currently, the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department has a 5 rating, while Tomé/Adelino is a 6.

Gwinn added that during community meetings prior to incorporation, residents advocated for keeping the district intact.

Eaton also addressed the possible benefits of the transfer for the county.

"If the city were to take over, it would relieve a whole lot of burden off of the county. Rio Grande Estates creates a lot of call volume for that fire district," he said.

Eaton noted that the paid fire personnel at the station could then be relocated to another site in the unincorporated county.

"We have to address the call volume in the county. I think we need to address our true responsibilities," he said.

There are four paid positions, what the county calls career staff, assigned to the station on a rotating basis, County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales told the commissioners.

When Commissioner Mary Andersen asked how the station would operate without the paid staff, Gonzales said it would strictly be a volunteer staff on a 24-hour basis. Paid firefighter/EMT response is currently available from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

Andersen said her primary concern was a reduction of the district's ISO rating.

"That's a big issue. I have no problem transferring the fire department to Rio Communities. I am concerned with maintaining the current status," Andersen said.

She continued, saying she was also concerned about turning over the property to the city and then seeing it disincorporate.

"There is an effort," she said.

Andersen asked for a clause in the resolution saying the property will revert to the county if the city disincorporates or the property stops being used as a fire station.

Commissioner Alicia Aguilar said when Rio Communities became a city, like any other municipality the county doesn't get involved.

"We will need approval from DFA, the fire marshal," she said. "This is just the beginning. If DFA says they won't approve it, we can't go forward."

Aguilar said she wanted assurances the county manager didn't have a "clean slate" for the transfer and that the matter would come back to the commissioners.

The transfer needs to be approved by the state department of finance and authority and the New Mexico State Board of Finance.

County attorney Adren Nance said if there was a problem with the transfer, it would come back to the commission, but if all goes smoothly, it won't.

Nance said the resolution gave the county manager authority to make the transfer of property to the city.

A resident of Rio Communities, Mike Melendres said he saw the transfer of the station as a "bit hasty."

"It has operated perfectly fine under the county. Trying to put that liability onto the city may be too much at this time," Melendres said.

Dorothy Trujillo, one of the Rio Communities residents spearheading the disincorporation effort, said the transfer of the department has never been discussed by the community or brought up at city council meetings.

"All of a sudden, at a county meeting, we're having this discussion about a serious project," Trujillo said. "We don't have a pot to piss in and they want to take over the fire department. When I questioned things, I was told, 'Don't you want a fire department?' Well, yes, but I don't want to see us in debt. I don't know where the politics come in."

According to an article in the July 25 edition of the News-Bulletin, New Mexico Fire Marshal John Standefer attended a Rio Communities city council meeting that month. He spoke to the council and those in attendance about the possibility of the city forming its own department as well as the county possibly transferring the department to Rio Communities.

At that time, Chief Gonzales told the newspaper there had been unofficial communication between the county and city about continuing fire services to the new municipality, but no official decisions had been made at that point.

During an interview following last week's commission meeting, Gonzales said right now, there is only the signed resolution but nothing more definitive.

"All it says is we need to start talking to Rio Communities and having conversations about how the transfer will go," the chief said. "The who, what, when and where hasn't been decided. There are still other approvals needed; this is still kind of premature."

Gonzales said he didn't know if the second main station in Tierra Grande would be included in the transfer.

"It's not part of the municipality. The boundaries have not been discussed. I'm not sure what the response boundaries are going to be. Just the city of Rio Communities? Are we going to have to redraw the district or will they serve the same area? I just don't know," he said.

Once the transfer is completed, Gonzales said it would lighten the load of the career staff significantly.

"It is kind of an opportunity for us to focus on other areas of the county," the chief said.

But he did go on to describe his feelings about the transfer as "very uneasy and uncomfortable."

"I don't mind them taking it," he said. "But as the county fire chief and a resident of Rio Communities, I see it going south as far as the ISO (rating)."

The last time the county transferred a county fire department to a municipality was in 2010, when it deeded over the Peralta department's land, building and equipment to the town of Peralta.

The town incorporated in 2007 and agreed to have the county continue operating the fire department for two years. At the end of that agreement, the city asked for a one-year extension.

"It was at the request of Peralta for the county to oversee the department because they knew they didn't have the resources," Gonzales said. "In those three years, nothing changed in the day-to-day operation. Even now, they are still part of our program, we still work together. I truly don't know what the push is about (in Rio Communities)."

Gwinn said the firefighters were "ecstatic" about the decision to transfer the department to the city.

"Ever since we became a city, we've supported them in a transfer," he said. "They've been having such a hard time with the county. The volunteers are a great bunch and we were starting to lose some of them."

Gwinn said he was told the department was having an issue with how the county appropriated money for department expenses.

"They said there was a lack of support when they were putting in requests for repairs, just a lack of attention," he said.

Interim RGE Chief Jason Gonzales told the Rio Communities City Council that the department's liability insurance as well as dispatch fees will be paid by the department with the state fire funds it receives.

"The state funds coming in make it (the fire department) pretty much self sustaining," Gwinn said.

The mayor said the city's treasurer is communicating with DFA and taxation and revenue about preparing the city for receiving and managing the funds.

"Our treasurer is making sure we have everything we need to in place," he said. "I'm sure the (county) fire chief is going to provide all the information needed to DFA and the state fire marshal."

Gwinn said while the city had "a lot of learning to do," there were people available such as Rubin and interim RGE Chief Jason Gonzales, to help the city through the transition.

"A lot of resources are making themselves available through the process," he said. "The department is well supported in this community and the entire fire district. It will be good to have the whole city under one fire district, instead of two."


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