Belen council agrees not to increase city utility bills

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Belen residents will be getting a bit of a reprieve from a scheduled increase on their city utility bill that was to take effect beginning next month.

The Belen City Council approved a resolution on a two to one vote Monday that will omit the reoccurring utility rate increase for the 2014-15 fiscal year because of the economy and to help residents with financial hardships.

Belen Councilor Frank Ortega proposed the resolution, saying he wanted to waive the automatic 4 percent increase for residents and 5 percent for those living outside the city limits this year.

The previous city council had approved the automatic increase in 2012, but decided to wait one year to enact it. The city didn’t start increasing the residents’ bills until 2013.

According to Roseann Peralta, the city’s financial specialist, the average resident who uses between 0-3,000 gallons a month will not have to pay $2.94 per month for the next fiscal year, which starts on July 2, 2014, and ends June 30, 2015.

“I wanted to waive the water utility bill from the automatic increase that would be taking place,” Ortega said. “We haven’t had any water projects, and according to our finances, we’re stabilized. I’m not saying we’re doing good, but we’re stabilized.”

Ortega said the idea to waive the increase this year is to give relief to Belen residents.

“I know this isn’t going to be a miracle for them, but at least it might help them,” he said.

Peralta told the council that based on the 0-3,000 gallon usage, the city would lose out on about $30,960 this year in the water enterprise fund, $37,440 in the waste water fund and $32,400 for the solid waste fund — a total of $100,800 for the year.

Peralta also reminded the council of the past projects these funds helped with, including $1.1 million for well No. 4 about 10 years ago and $800,000 for phase three of the waste water rehab project. She said phase four still needs to be completed.

“We do have plans for this money we are collecting,” Peralta said. “We did have a major sewer collapse last week on Michigan (Avenue). We had to install a new line, and luckily, we had enough in the waste water fund to pay for that.”

Councilor Darleen Aragon, who voted against the resolution, said she would love to give money back to the residents, but that the city had to “do the smart thing.”

“We do need so much money for infrastructure,” Aragon said. “Until I got in here, I didn’t realize how bad our infrastructure really is. Three dollars is a bit negligible, but $100,000 (for a sewer line break) is a lot of money.”

Aragon told the council that the city has a lot of projects they could fund with the money they would be collecting with the increase.

Councilor David Carter, who voted with Ortega to pass the resolution, said after looking at the city’s water, waste water and solid waste funds, he believes they’re is in good shape.

“Our position in the water fund changed to the positive for $604,287 … our waste water position changed $270,000 in the positive,” Carter said.

“We have more money in the bank than when we started the year. If we’re getting that kind of money, we have to get serious about why we’re putting too fast of a burden on the citizens.”

Carter questioned how fast does the city want to build the funds without spending it.

“What I’m saying is we are in a good position — a very good position,” he said. “We are bringing in plenty of revenue and how much do we want to bring in and take from the taxpayers every year?”

Mayor Jerah Cordova told the council to keep in mind that the city can do self-funded projects, where they won’t have to look for grants and then come up with matching funds or look for a loan.

“If we have a healthy surplus, and if we build up that surplus, we can do some of these projects on our own and we don’t have to wait around for grant opportunities or ICIP, which is specifically to ask for capital outlay funding.”

Cordova said the council can look at it two ways. He said the city could self-fund some of the projects or continue to ask the state or federal government for funds for projects that have to be completed in phases.

The mayor also said that the annual increase would not only help the city to self-fund projects, but it would improve the quality of life for residents with better infrastructure.

Ortega said as elected officials, “we’re supposed to give taxpayers a relief. We haven’t had a major water project since 2010. I’m not saying to completely take it away, but we can wait until next year when we have projects.”

Mary Lee Serna, a Rio Communities city councilor who owns property in the city of Belen, told the council that the water rates in Belen are “outrageous.”

“I would really appreciate your consideration on this matter,” Serna said. “It’s impossible nowadays for many people to afford this. Also, the sewer rates are ridiculous.”

In the end, Ortega and Carter voted in favor of the resolution, while Aragon voted against it. Councilor Wayne Gallegos was not at Monday’s meeting.

The city council will hold a special meeting at 1:30 p.m., Friday, June 20, to discuss its Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan, such as water and waste water projects.

The councilors will also be discussing about asking voters to approve a general obligation bond to help pay for specific projects.


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