A contentious meeting of the Torrance County Commission took over five hours as commissioners heard from the public about proposed changes to its Solid Waste Management Ordinance.
The agenda item did not match most of the comments, the majority of which alleged corruption and bad management of the county, along with complaints about management of the Estancia Valley Solid Waste Authority.
The EVSWA is a quasi-governmental entity formed through a joint effort of several municipalities and Torrance County. Its role is to run the landfill east of Moriarty; additionally it has a contract with Torrance County for solid waste disposal services along with other services.
That contract was the source of most of the ire of people who showed up at last week’s meeting to put their two cents in about trash disposal in the county.
The EVSWA charges Torrance County about $800,000 a year. The Solid Waste Authority built and operates collection stations around the county where residents can dispose of their garbage and recyclables.
Torrance County sets the fees for that service at $240 a year, or $60 a quarter. If the fees are not paid, those residents can still take their trash to the transfer stations, according to EVSWA manager Joseph Ellis.
However, nonpayment of the fee can and does result in liens being placed against properties if the owner does not pay for two years.
Those liens, and the fact that the county does not pick up residents’ trash for the fee it charges, were the source of most complaints at the meeting, which had a few dozen people speak.
Before that public hearing, Commissioner Julia DuCharme took the county’s purchasing agent, Leslie Olivas, to task for not writing a request for bids for the solid waste disposal service.
“It’s not as simple as it’s been made to be,” Olivas said, adding that felony charges could devolve to her if the bid documents are not written correctly.
When DuCharme asked why the process was frightening, adding that Olivas “received certification,” Olivas replied, “Yes, ma’am, I did—that’s why I’m raising my concerns.”
Commissioner Jim Frost said that because the county is revisiting its solid waste ordinance it would be “premature right now” to write a request for bids.
County manager Joy Ansley said county staff had been given direction to look into writing a request for bids but that the matter had not been voted on. Clarification Tuesday from the county clerk’s office confirmed that the commission did take a vote to “go out for an RFP for status-quo services of the transfer stations.”
DuCharme said, “The decision was already made. You just need to execute it and not make excuses.”
When the public hearing started, the biggest bone of contention seemed to be that EVSWA does not provide curbside pickup of garbage. Another issue was raised by those people who pay a private contractor to remove trash but still have to pay the county’s fee—albeit at a reduced rate.
William Lothrop said he thinks the fee is “wrong and I believe it to be illegal.”
Sieglende Alexander said she pays more than $60 every quarter but only brings in one 30-pound bag every 14 weeks.
Cody Brister started a Facebook group called Stop Torrance County Corruption, and a gofundme.com account for the same purpose. That fund has raised $155 since Dec. 1, 2015.
Brister says the county’s ordinance is in violation of state statute because the statute provides for the county to collect fees “from people using the sites.” He said the county has “cleverly worded” its ordinance.
Former county commissioner Lonnie Freyburger started his comments by asking commission chair LeRoy Candelaria to recuse himself because Candelaria had previously voted to renew EVSWA’s contract.
Freyburger said it was “dereliction of duty” that the county has not yet gone out for bid.
John Lindsey likened the group to Robin Hood, saying, “I can not charge somebody for a car I didn’t tow.” He added, “People are starving in this community. You guys are taxing the hell out of them.”
Charlene Guffey said, “For the rest, we feel these services are the best for the public. … The price we pay is very compatible to what others pay.”
Charles Armijo said he came to the meeting to learn, and said a solution is “somewhere in the middle.”
Therese Cooper, by contrast, blasted the commission: “We’re not receiving the service and we’re paying for it. That’s a tax,” she said. “You all are not listening to us. … This is a gross grievance.”
Art DuCharme is on the board of EVSWA representing the city of Moriarty. He said he is the only board member on the solid waste authority who offered suggestions.
Art DuCharme said that the proposed changes would raise rates on low-income customers. “The so-called county representatives are not serving the best interests of county residents.” He urged the commission to reject the proposal.
Daniel Nordstrom said, “What you’ve got set up is wrong. It’s immoral, it’s illegal.” He added, “Being charged for services not received is extortion.”
Michael Godey said the solid waste board “ignores the land grants” and said EVSWA has “bad and corrupt management.”
Bill Larsen echoed Charles Armijo’s words, and said the county should be “thinking together and working together.”
Edwina Hewett said she is not opposed to paying a “fair fee” for solid waste disposal and is not opposed “to a county mandate.”
She said creation of the fee, which she termed a tax, was “beyond your discretionary powers.” Hewett added, “When the public takes Torrance County to court, they lose. Please represent the public. It’s your job.”
Brad Townsend is a realtor and said it’s not fair that some houses that “are not even habitable” have to pay for the service.
Steve Jones was a county commissioner 23 years ago when the solid waste ordinance was put into place. “Folks then were just as passionate,” Jones said. “I can’t tell any difference.”
Jones said the more vocal residents served on a committee that created the solid waste ordinance.
There is a difference in cost to collect trash in a city like Albuquerque “and there’s a million of you,” Jones said.
A former magistrate judge, Jones said the ordinance has been enforced.
Bill Radosevich, who owns N.M. Waste Services, said, “A lot of the changes here only benefit solid waste. I don’t see any benefits to residents.”
To those who say private haulers won’t pick up bulky items, Radosevich said, “We do take bulky items. If you pay us, we’ll pick it up. We charge by the item you pick up.”
Peggy Schwebach said, “What we’re talking about here is not out of line,” and said she also remembered when the solid waste authority was formed. “There’s a huge amount of misunderstanding about the structure and the operation.”
“We’re overcharged for something we don’t get,” said Larry Thompson, advocating a pay as you throw approach, and withholding payment from EVSWA.
Armijo ended by asking the commissioners “not to kick this can down the road again.”
No action was taken by the commission.
Note: This story has been edited from the print version to more accurately reflect Charlene Guffey’s comments.
Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at email@example.com.