Public comment against Edgewood acquisition of Epcor water system

Nearly two dozen people spoke out against Edgewood’s planned acquisition of Epcor water at a standing-room only meeting last week in an extended public comment session.

None of the speakers were in favor of the town taking over the water system.

A month ago the town’s attorney sent a letter to Epcor stating its intent “to purchase or begin condemnation proceedings to acquire the Epcor Edgewood Water System.”

Edgewood Mayor John Bassett said last week that the town wants to explore the idea of owning its own water system, and said the letter was a step in that process.

Representatives from Epcor have said the company will fight condemnation with every legal means at its disposal.

The town has held no public meetings on the subject, but after the letter became public and Epcor sent out a postcard to its customers asserting that if the town acquires the system their rates would go up, people attended last week’s council meeting to voice their concerns as “public comment.”

The town’s attorney, Randy Autio, said it was Epcor that put the cart before the horse by informing the public of the town’s intentions.

The state’s Open Meetings Act allows for closed meetings on the acquisition of property.

“Just to clarify, you are correct that this matter hadn’t been brought to the public before,” Autio said, adding, “No action can be taken by the town until we have those public meetings. The cart got before the horse on this with Epcor’s note to everyone.”

Autio said the town wants information on the value and operations of the system. “If they don’t cooperate, our only means of investigating would be through a legal process to get that information.”

Daniel Bailet, vice president and general manager of Epcor’s New Mexico operations, said, “The taking of private property of a perfectly successful, longstanding business in this community warrants a full debate including dedicated public workshops, not just closed sessions or a public hearing jammed into a regular council meeting. I was shocked by the town’s notice it would be condemning our water system.”

Condemnation in this context does not mean that the water system is substandard, but is a legal term of art.

Bailet said, “You’d be left with a bundle of debt, and customers would be saddled with higher water rates and higher taxes. And for what?” He continued, “Our employees are well-trained and highly certified. You see them around town, but what you don’t see is what’s behind our local crew: the engineering, environmental, planning, financial and other resources that support our district operations. This can not be replicated by a small town.”

Martin Stannach, a senior manager and general counsel for Epcor, said legal fees for Edgewood would cost “two to five million dollars” and that if Edgewood for any reason did not purchase the system at that point, the number would double as the town would have to pay Epcor’s legal expenses as well.

Members of the public who spoke said that while Edgewood’s water is very hard and full of particulates, Epcor has been a good manager of the system.

“Epcor is a very good water company that responds immediately to leaks,” said Gary Hill, adding, “I’m convinced this is a move to raise taxes and water rates to pay for an expansion of the current sewer system.”

“Consumers are going to pay for both sides of that litigation by the time you’re done,” said Tom McGill. “You’re going to have to hire specialists to fight that battle.”

“This is a reprehensible attempt not to be transparent, not to be forthcoming, and it borders on misfeasance and maybe even malfeasance,” said Gerald Curtis. He added, “These are questions that need to be answered, even if you don’t want to answer them, Mr. Mayor.”

Epcor employee Cynthia Arnold said she fears that if the town takes over the system that “quality and service would slump,” adding, “I’m scared.”

Howard Calkins started the water company, which has changed hands three times since then and was formerly Edgewood’s mayor. “Why does the city of Edgewood want to buy the water system? How many of you know what a water system is or how to run one? … And another thing. The water system is not for sale, but you’re going to take it anyway. What a deal.”

Tom Torres manages Epcor’s Edgewood and Clovis water systems. “We’re an integral part of this community,” he said, adding, “In particular I find it callous and hurtful and frightening to my employees that I would receive a letter in my office. … This is a serious matter that threatens their livelihood and they’re frightened. It could have been handled a whole lot better than that. Council, I urge you, change this practice. You can do it tonight. This is not good for Edgewood, and definitely not good for my employees.”

Ray Seagers called the acquisition “a terrible mistake” which would cause rates to go up and leaves those Epcor customers outside the town’s boundaries without recourse to affect the decision. With another water system serving some portions of Edgewood, he said the acquisition would throw a financial burden on only those residents who are Epcor customers.

“Why is the town going to such lengths, especially when it’s going to be so expensive and traumatic?” asked Roberta Reinhart.

“We have so many other things in this town that need improvement,” said Teresa Phillip.

Nancy Adamson said she lives “in the Edgewood side of Torrance County,” asking, “If you decide to buy Epcor Water, what’s going to happen to us?”

Tappan Mahoney was formerly the town’s engineer, and said, “The water system is not the one that’s broken. The saying is if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. The one that needs to be fixed is the sewer.”