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Artesians were invited to bring any remaining questions or concerns they may have regarding last month’s water system contamination to the Artesia Center Tuesday for a town hall meeting on the subject.

The 10-day boil water order was put in effect July 15 after E. coli was detected during routine water testing and lifted July 24 after two consecutive days of clear testing had been achieved.

Representatives of the New Mexico Environment Department and its Drinking Water Bureau branch were on hand Friday for the first day of the Artesia City Council’s annual retreat at Hotel Artesia.

State officials have indicated they would like to see Artesia begin disinfecting its water with chlorine going forward. The city has never had a disinfection program in place due to never having received a test positive for E. coli before July.

“They recognize, as do we, that we have a decision to make with regard to how we go forward, and they’re trying very hard not to appear to be pushing us, but clearly, they have an opinion on what we should do,” Mayor Phillip Burch said this morning. “And we understand that. So we had some discussions on the pluses and minuses of what we’ve been doing, the pluses and minuses of changing to another type of process, and they were very open in saying, ‘OK, you can do this and here are the risks, or you can do that and here are the risks.’”

Burch said the representatives were in agreement the city had taken appropriate actions throughout the process.

“They agreed with the city’s direction virtually every day,” said the mayor. “So it was a very good relationship from that standpoint all through the process. As they said, their responsibility is oversight. If they thought we were going down the wrong road at any point, they certainly would’ve told us, but it was a very cooperative effort through the whole thing as far as that went.”

Problems arose, however, from statements made to outside media sources that appeared to indicate the NMED felt the city was indirectly responsible for the contamination or that its disinfection efforts – such as flushing the system with chlorine – were potentially dangerous.

“Unfortunately, some of the reporters in communities north and south of us took some liberties, and it caused a lot of problems,” said Burch, “problems that still exist today. Because people were left with opinions or views they’d read that were just not accurate, and so that’s why we wanted to have the town hall meeting tonight to say, ‘Look, we know you may have seen this or read this or heard this, but here are the facts.’”

Burch said the council will be continuing its discussions on what direction the city will take with its water system, with a target date of Sept. 15 for making a final decision.

“That’ll give us, if we need them, three meetings to have any kinds of discussions the council wants to have,” said the mayor. “Until then, it’s gather information and consider.

“At this point, I think the council has a better understanding of what we’re faced with in terms of making a decision, and in the next couple of meetings, we’ll go through all that.”

City budget takes another GRT return hit

The council also addressed a number of other topics at its retreat this weekend, including the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

Another recent shock from its July Gross Receipts Tax (GRT) return presented the council with the unhappy task of adjusting that budget back to bare bones, but as the mayor pointed out, if any part of the situation could be considered a silver lining, it was the timing of the GRT return.

Burch says the city was coming off of two healthy months of returns in May and June.

“We attributed that to the money working through the system from the turnaround that Holly did,” said Burch. “Those last two months pulled us out of a hole to almost even with our last year’s budget, so we thought, ‘OK, if we’re all even now, let’s go with this budget’… and then we get squashed again.”

The city was anticipating a return between $1.8 and $1.9 million. They actually received $2.3 million – but $1.8 of that was lost to an adjustment, leaving Artesia with a $511,000 return.

Adjustments are most typically the result of a large company filing an amended tax return in order to recoup money they were owed through, for example, a deduction they neglected to take. Of that total amount, the state, county and city are all responsible for portions.

“With the counties and cities, they just withhold that amount from your next return, which is part of the problem,” said Burch. “Because they never warn you.

“It seems like to me it would be a simple thing for somebody from Santa Fe to pick up the phone, call us, and say, ‘Hey, be aware that there’s going to be an adjustment, it’s going to hit you pretty hard, it’s $1.8 million.’ But they don’t do that. They just let you see that number, and then they let you call them. And they don’t answer any questions. ‘What company?’ ‘We can’t tell you.’ ‘What was it for?’ ‘We can’t tell you.’”

Burch said the fact the return was received prior to the council’s retreat, however, allowed the city time to change the budget to reflect the new lack of funds.

“To put this in perspective, if we didn’t have a General Fund balance, if we hadn’t put money away, we could not make the payroll for July,” said the mayor. “There’s just not enough there.

“It’s amazing how easy it is to budget when you don’t have any money. You go through the absolute musts, and that is meeting payroll, the ever-increasing benefit costs, insurance, those types of things, and then you say until mid-year, we’re not going to do anything else. So that’s basically where we are.”

Burch said he felt most of the department heads went into the retreat knowing no excess funds were available to address additional needs but that departments made their presentations in anticipation of more money possibly being available mid-year.

“I think if you talked to most of them, they would feel that they were fairly treated and that when funds are available, they’ll have the opportunity to add what they need,” said the mayor.

Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan

Also on the council’s agenda was putting together its annual Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan (ICIP) for the state legislature.

These are the projects communities take to the state each year as those they’d like to complete with capital outlay funds.

“This year, there was no capital outlay money, so the list we’d put together last year was a year older, and some things had changed,” said Burch.

The council was able to remove the water tank at the Industrial Park and the extension of Hermosa Drive west of 26th Street from the list, as those projects had moved forward regardless.

Burch says topping the city’s new list is another water tank in Jaycee Park.

“We already have a well at Jaycee Park, but we’ve never had a tank,” said the mayor. “Putting a tank out there would help to equalize pressures in the south and west parts of town. We had some good pressure results when we built the one in the Industrial Park. We’ve done the engineering on a new tank, but we need some help with construction bucks, so that’s No. 1.”

Second on the list is the city’s long-planned annex building across Fifth Street in the vacant lot to the east, intended to consolidate city employees into one location.

“Right now, we have planning in one location, safety in another location, purchasing in another, and all these departments really kind of work together,” said Burch. “For people to get a permit, they have to leave here and go over there, but when they’re ready to pay for that permit, they have to come back over here… it’s inconvenient for the public and it’s inconvenient for the staffs, too, so we’ve had this on the wish list for about five years.

“About three years ago, we put $3 million aside and said, ‘OK, this is the first installment.’ We estimated the building would cost us about $6 million, so we were going to break it up over two fiscal years. Unfortunately, when that second $3 million was due, we started seeing the downturn in oil and gas, and we just couldn’t do it that year. The next year was even worse, so we took the $3 million we’d set aside and put it back in the General Fund, because we didn’t know if we’d need it for daily activities.”

Coming in at No. 3 is the completion of the lighting project around Eagle Draw.

Burch says the portion of the draw’s walking trail from 10th to 13th streets has proven popular with the public, and the city is hoping to move forward with lighting a second section.

“My hope is the next segment would be from Seventh to 10th, and then we can go one of two ways – either Seventh back to First of 13th around the curve to Main Street. But the goal is to, at some point through these piecemeal projects, have it fully lit all the way to 26th Street.”

The council’s fourth proposed ICIP project is the portion of Hermosa Drive from 13th Street to 26th Street.

“Once we finish the 13th Street project, which will be somewhere around the end of this year, the next need becomes Hermosa,” said the mayor. “There are some width issues in that street – it changes a couple of times – that need to be addressed, as well as just resurfacing and looking at the water and wastewater utilities.

“We don’t see any huge need for storm water infrastructure in that area, so it would be a little less extensive than the 13th Street project, but it’s very much needed. We’d like to fund that with bonds like we’ve funded everything else, but we don’t know that that’ll be available to us when we get there, so it’s on the list to talk to the legislature about.”

Finally, the city has earmarked general improvements at Jaycee Park.

“Over the years, we’ve done a few things out there, but we’ve never in my mind gotten real serious and said, ‘Let’s make a park out of it,’” said Burch.

The mayor said while the various baseball and softball fields at the park have made improvements to their lighting, surfaces and fencing over the years, the layout remains the same as it was when first established.

“Nobody’s really taken a hard look and said, ‘Look, if we just took an eraser and took everything off of this thing, how would we lay it out today knowing the needs of not only the Little League but the girls and their softball, the adult softball facilities, and everything else the park could really provide, from soccer to possibly a practice facility for football, those sorts of things.

“All the pieces are out there, but I don’t think anybody says, ‘… and they’re state of the art.’ We probably should do that.”

The mayor said the one item that wasn’t discussed as part of the ICIP was a swimming pool, which he said has much to do with the fact a local group has essentially taken over spearheading that project.

“I’m impressed with how much they’ve advanced the subject and gotten it out there, how many things they’ve done in terms of getting people together who not only represent the people who want a pool but the funding of it, the design, architecture, construction folks, people with foundations in other communities that have gone through this,” said the mayor. “They’ve invited the city to be a part of it, as well as the school system and the hospital, because all three of those have a real interest in doing this.

“So that item is alive and well. It’s coming together pretty quickly, and I think it will move fairly rapidly as time goes by.”

Public safety

The mayor said the council was particularly engaged at this year’s retreat by the reports from its new public safety heads: Police Chief Kirk Roberts and Fire Chief Kevin Hope.

“It was kind of new ground being plowed,” Burch said. “We enjoyed understanding how their perspectives of the fire department and police department are different from their predecessors. They’re both still totally committed to serving the public, but they have a little bit of a different slant on things, and it was good to be able to spend that time with them.”

Burch said a large portion of the police department discussion focused on body cameras and other changing technology in law enforcement.

The upsides and downsides of dash and body cams were discussed amidst a national climate in which Burch says everyone has predominantly acclimated to the fact that those types of technologies are needed and will become the norm.

Per the fire department, Hope addressed a topic he’d begun to breach during his tenure as fire marshal for Eddy County – in-house air ambulance service.

“It’s an interesting program,” said Burch. “The city is certainly sold on the need for air ambulance service out of Artesia, because it has saved a lot of lives over the years. It’s just how do we fill that need – by outsourcing, which is what we do now, or internally, which involves us taking on the risks and the financially responsibility of doing that.

“Chief Hope gave a very good presentation on the numbers, and it’s something that we will not consider at the first of the fiscal year but, depending on how well we do in the coming months, may look at again come mid-year.”

Safety bonuses and utility liens

Also at the retreat, the council opted to try a revised version of its safety bonus program, as well as to take a close look at utility liens.

Under the city’s safety program, which has been in place for several years, all employees are eligible for a specific sum bonus at the end of the year, dependent upon their department’s safety record, the city’s record, and their personal record.

“At the end of the year, you add everything up, and sometimes people get $500, sometimes they get $200, and the difference is accidents, lost time, and those sorts of things during the year,” said Burch. “There were some feelings that maybe we weren’t focusing on the right things and that we needed to tinker with those events a little bit, so we had that discussion.”

The mayor said all involved were comfortable with the idea of changing the program requirements on a trial basis for one year to see which version of the system works best.

The city will also be looking into the rather involved process of collecting on utility liens, one that involves an at-times complicated list of do’s and don’t’s that are also regulated by the state.

“It’s a lot of little sums of money that make big numbers, so we always kind of chase that one,” said the mayor. “It just causes the city a lot of problems when a person leaves town, calls in and says, ‘Turn my water off,’ or somebody walks in and says, ‘I want the water changed to my name’ and there’s a pending bill.

“Do you just write it off? The city’s really not wanting to do that. So there’s a process we’re looking into.”

In personnel business at the retreat, the council approved the lateral hiring of Leticia Gomez as a legal assistant in the Human Resources department at a pay rate of $2,631 per month and the promotions of Tammy Brown to police administrative assistant, $2,889 per month, and Armanda D. Lucero to Streets Department foreman, $3,067 per month.

The council granted permission to advertise and fill the positions of two police records clerks, cemetery equipment operator, streets equipment operator, wastewater assistant, and police corporal.

As part of its consent agenda, the council approved:

• an airport hangar lease with Stephen Brindeiro, dba Dairy Co., for Hangar No. 213.
• the resignation of John Stephenson, wastewater assistant, effective July 21.
• the resignation of Brenda Meeks, cemetery equipment operator, effective July 17.
• the resignation of Clifton Rogers, firefighter, effective Aug. 4.
• the resignation of Juan Reyes, police corporal, effective Aug. 2.
• permission for two wastewater employees to attend the Southeast Section Workshop in Roswell.
• permission for one fire employee to attend the NAEMSE Conference in Washington, D.C.
• permission for one police employee to participate in online IR8000 training in Artesia.
• permission for one police employee to attend an exercise evaluation class and practicals in Capitan.
• permission for one police employee to attend the annual vehicle forfeiture conference in Santa Fe.
• permission for one police employee to participate in the Intox Machine Recertification online course.
• permission for one police employee to attend the New Mexico Homeland Security Emergency Management Conference in Albuquerque.
• permission for one police employee to attend pepperball instructor/armorer training in Albuquerque.
• permission for one police employee to attend first line supervision and management training in Albuquerque.
• permission for one police employee to attend first line supervision and management training in Las Cruces.
• permission for three fire employees to attend an emergency vehicle driving course in Socorro.
• permission for one fire employee to attend Crude by Rail training in Pueblo, Colo.