Torrance County responded to a letter from the Attorney General’s office last week, responding to a complaint by Manuel Romero, an Estancia man who was elected to the board of trustees there last month.
Romero had sent a letter to the AG’s office at the end of January, alleging that Torrance County is engaging in a “scam” by “establish[ing] accounts with or without the property owners consent.” He further alleged that the county had issued “a no-bid contract,” which he said “appears in violation of state law.”
Romero is referring to the Estancia Valley Solid Waste Authority, a quasi-governmental agency formed through a joint powers agreement, or JPA, between several local governments including Torrance County. The other member-entities are the city of Moriarty, towns of Estancia, Mountainair, Encino, Willard and Vaughn.
Those governments banded together to create what is now called the Estancia Valley Solid Waste Authority. That entity is not a private business; and it built the landfill following environmental regulations that shut down small landfills that formerly dotted the landscape.
The AG’s office asked for a “written response” no later than April 13.
County attorney Dennis Wallin drafted a letter Tuesday as requested, which said, “We have had the occasion to address this issue on behalf of the county several times and very recently the county commission requested a legal opinion on the legality of the fee and we have provided it with the opinion that the fee established by Ordinance 94-12 complies with New Mexico law.”
Wallin goes on to explain that the fee is imposed for the “solid waste collection and disposal system” and not the landfill.
Torrance County is both a member-entity under the JPA, and it has a contract with EVSWA for solid waste disposal services, which EVSWA provides through eight collection stations around the county.
“The fee created by the ordinance was meant to offset the cost of the system, which consists of various collection sites throughout the county, some manned, some unmanned,” Wallin wrote, adding, “You should be aware also that the EVSWA and the county are currently negotiating a new contract for the solid waste collection and disposal system because the EVSWA has been operating that system at a loss of about $200,000 annually. The commission and the county manager have been studying ways to fund that deficit without raising fees to the public.”
In his January 31 letter to Hector Balderas, Romero included a petition signed by about two dozen people, and said, “We feel that TCO 94-12 should be declared obsolete, and a complete rewrite should take place, so everything contained in the ordinance should comply with state statutes.”
Wallin said the county has “several times” responded to the same allegations, adding, “We have provided [the county] with the opinion that the fee established by Ordinance 94-12 complies with New Mexico law.”
At the last county commission meeting, the chairman of the Solid Waste Authority, David Saline, told the commission that EVSWA can’t continue to operate its contract with the county at a loss.
Before the contract was signed in 2014, the county and the Solid Waste Authority had operated on a “handshake,” he said. The contract put into place was based on projected numbers, and the actual numbers show EVSWA losing about $200,000 a year on that contract, he said.
In addition, the contract provides for either party to withdraw from the contract under certain conditions, including financial loss.
When Saline was questioned by county commissioner Julia DuCharme as to why the county should go along with renegotiating the contract, he answered that the Solid Waste Authority might withdraw from it because it needs those funds to build its next cell in the landfill.
Romero’s letter also alleges that county residents have to pay the fees “even if you do not utilize EVSWA’s facilities,” adding, “This policy seems very unfair to me, being charged for something that is never used.”
The county sets the fees for its trash disposal collection system; it also provides for lower fees for low-income residents, those using a private hauler and others.
The county also tasked its three representatives on the EVSWA board, Saline, along with former commissioner Leanne Tapia and county manager Joy Ansley, with making recommended changes to Ordinance 94-12. That committee met and offered suggested changes, but they have not been enacted by the commission yet.
The commission also voted last year to issue a request for bids for the services provided by the contract with EVSWA; that process hit snags and has been a bone of contention between DuCharme and the county manager and the county purchasing agent who have to write the RFP.
The issue for the county is to define the scope of that RFP, and the commission is divided, with DuCharme opposed by fellow commissioners Jim Frost and LeRoy Candelaria. While DuCharme has said she favors having a broadly defined RFP, Frost and Candelaria want to see an “apples to apples” comparison.