Tijeras mayor Jake Bruton held the first “state of the village address” over the weekend, where he reported on his efforts to clean up the “little bit of a mess” he found upon taking office Jan. 1.
Bruton addressed the ongoing issue of the way PERA contributions were handled, the village water and wastewater system, a new website, and other items.
Bruton talked about the “unauthorized payout” made to village employees by former mayor Gloria Chavez in the amount of about $65,000. Chavez told The Independent in January last year, “What was translated in the resolution by my staff was that it was overpayment and so after researching with the people from PERA and looking at the resolution I did make the decision to go ahead and pay staff back what had been overpaid. I did not take it to council. I should have.”
What that means for village employees now is that they will face a demand letter for repayment of the money, and will also be liable for expenses incurred by the village in getting the money back, Bruton said. Even some employees who didn’t get a payout will have to return money to the village, because the PERA payments were not calculated correctly after the payouts were made.
“Some of the worst stuff is that people who didn’t receive a payout are going to have to return money to the village because of how the mayor had directed the financial director to begin drawing PERA out of their checks,” Bruton said in an interview with The Independent after his address to villagers. “It’s awful, it’s completely tragic, it sucks 100 percent. It feels awful, but we’re under a mandate from the Attorney General and the State Auditor to draw back those funds.”
Bruton said the village employs 13 people, and nearly all of them will be affected by the repayments. It has an annual budget of around $1.3 million, he said.
That error was part of sloppy record-keeping and lax enforcement that Bruton said he found in the village’s financial practices. He hired a clerk and financial director.
The village audit was due to the state by Dec. 15, but as of Feb. 29 was not yet ready to submit. “Last year’s audit was a complete mess, to not mince words or anything,” Bruton said.
He said the village had to hire two different CPAs, one to gather the financial records and a second to conduct the audit. “It was because of our financial practices, how we were keeping records, how they were maintaining the funds, stuff like that,” Bruton said.
Once that audit is complete, Bruton said the village will have a good idea of the state of its finances.
The village water system is $38,000 in the red and in danger of being taken over by the state if it doesn’t become self-sufficient, Bruton said, adding that “water rates will inevitably go up.” He also addressed billing problems that he likened to loan sharking.
Right now villagers pay about $15 for up to 3,000 gallons of water, Bruton said, adding that this is far less than other water systems in the area charge. The village has been subsidizing the system from its general fund. “We’ve been told by the state that as a municipality our water system needs to sustain itself, and if it doesn’t sustain itself, they’ll take it from us and sell it,” Bruton said. “So we need a water system that sustains itself.”
Bruton said that in addition to raising rates, the village is looking at ways to cut the costs of the system, including contracting out for maintenance on the system instead of employing a water operator. He said first projections indicate the change will cost about half what it now does.
Another way to reduce the costs of the system will be to maintain and monitor it more carefully, Bruton said. “It’s like if you don’t change the oil in your car, your car blows up. It’s the cost of changing the oil versus replacing the engine—which is what we’ve been doing, we’ve been waiting until something blows up then we replace the engine.”
He described a “multifaceted approach” and said he expects the increase to be around double the current rate.
Bruton described the village’s old water system as “basically loan sharking,” because if someone got behind on the bill, the village would add a charge of 10 percent. “We were charging 10 percent on top of 10 percent on top of 10 percent on top of 10 percent,” he said.
That issue has been corrected, he said, with the village removing the additional charges on affected customer bills.
The village will change its billing to charge for water by the gallon. Previously, it was sold to villagers in increments of 1,000 gallons; Bruton said a resident would get charged the same amount of 1,000 gallons or 1,999 gallons.
Village water meters read by the gallon, and can be read remotely, he said.
Tijeras has “one well that’s failing, one that’s pumping at a fair enough rate to keep us sustained, and we’re getting ready to drill that third well,” Bruton said, adding that the village has been allocated $690,000 in capital outlay this year for the system.
He said he expects the third well to be online in about 10 months; engineers are already working on design.
In general, “There’s a lot of policies that weren’t being followed, and a sort of laissez-faire maintenance and record-keeping, stuff like that,” Bruton said.
He said “it’s been stated or reported” that the village has a wastewater ordinance, but staff has been able to find one after searching the building.
Right now, the village is working on its personnel policies, which Bruton said had “very minimal enforcement” under Chavez.
The village is updating its website to make it “accessible and easy to use,” Bruton said, adding that villagers will be able to access public documents and forms, and pay bills through the site.
Residents will also be able to opt in to a public service announcement system, through text, email or audio, or all three, he said.
Bruton said he is also creating three advisory committees. He said there have been no functioning committees in the village except the one which created the Veterans Memorial during his six-year tenure on the village council.
Bruton plans a business advisory committee to get feedback and advice from the business community on matters affecting them, and how they think the village can attract business; a veterans advisory committee, “to help the village connect with those who have served our country” and to maintain the memorial; and a residents advisory committee, to “hear the voices of the community and address the concerns of our citizens,” he said.
“I know I can’t do this alone, and I don’t always have the right answers,” Bruton said to conclude his state of the village address, “but with the council and input from advisory committees to implement policies and change, I think we can make some great changes in the community and just make a much, much better community for us.”