About 50 people attended a contentious town hall meeting July 7 on the town’s proposed acquisition of Epcor Water’s Edgewood system.
That was the fourth meeting held in the past few weeks, all coming after Epcor made public a letter from the town’s attorney saying that Edgewood intends to acquire the water system through condemnation.
Epcor hosted a meeting July 2 which was attended by 75 to 100 people; meanwhile Edgewood heard public comments at a town hall meeting June 27, followed by a workshop on the topic July 3, and then Saturday’s town hall.
A big bone of contention for many people commenting publicly on the acquisition is the fact that deliberations on the matter were held in closed session, and the town’s intentions were not known until disclosed by Epcor. The state’s Open Meetings Act allows for closed meetings on several specific items, including acquisition of property.
Some who spoke out July 7 said they thought the townspeople should have the opportunity to vote on a decision such as this one.
“If it’s going to affect us in a very dramatic way, we have the right to vote,” one man said. “I don’t hear representation of us here.”
“We the people don’t get to vote on every single issue,” said Janelle Turner.
Both town clerk Juan Torres and Edgewood Mayor John Bassett said to the audience that many people are not aware of how government works.
“I’d be really careful from anyone’s perspective telling people how government works,” former mayor Brad Hill said.
Acquisition of Epcor’s water system is tied up with Edgewood’s problematic sewer system. Bassett has said that owning a municipal water system could make it easier to get money to offset costs of its ailing wastewater system. The wastewater system also needs more effluent going through it to function optimally.
“The sewer was economic development for the town,” Hill said, adding that his administration had a long-term plan for water that involved Epcor which the town has now abandoned.
Bassett said Edgewood took that plan to the state, which rejected its bid for a different type of wastewater treatment plant. “You need to learn to live with the one you’ve got,” he said, referring to the sewer system.
Another man said the closed-door dealings had “eroded the trust of the public,” adding, “Do we have to go to every council meeting?” Bassett pointed out that he himself had attended council meetings for 18 years before being elected mayor.
Another issue brought up are those Epcor customers who live outside of the town of Edgewood, with no vote in town. Yet another concern centers around people who live in Edgewood and either have a private well, or are served by a different water system—and whether those people would also bear the cost of acquiring Epcor.
Torres said only Epcor customers would be liable for that cost by paying off debt for acquisition using dollars that under a private company are profit.
Councilor Sherry Abraham said that when she approved getting a value for Epcor, she did not know that would result in the letter stating Edgewood intends to acquire the system through condemnation proceedings. “I gave consent to look into this,” she said. I did not give consent to condemning.”
Both Bassett and Torres have said that the letter contains standard legal language and is simply the first step in the legal process that will allow the town to see Epcor’s books, and to ascertain a value for the system—after which the town council would vote in open session on whether to proceed.
“In my lifetime I’ve seen a number of those [eminent domain] letters,” Bassett said. “We looked at it. It looked like a standard one of those letters. I didn’t think it would piss everybody off.” Bassett added, “The letter is not a decision,” to which a member of the audience barked, “Then back down now.”
One woman at the meeting said she has prepared a petition in opposition to the acquisition and to recall the mayor. “You can’t recall the mayor,” said former town councilor Chuck Ring, adding, “If you don’t like the decisions they make you can vote them out.”
Epcor’s vice president of New Mexico operations, Daniel Bailet, suggested that Edgewood and Moriarty could tie their wastewater systems together.
“Do we want our fate in Moriarty’s hands once again?” Bassett asked, saying that people had “squealed like stuck pigs” when the Moriarty-Edgewood School District voted to close down schools, including Edgewood Elementary.
Torres said in an interview Monday that there are things the town can do that a private company can’t, like apply for grants.
While many of the people who have spoken out against the town taking over the water system because it lacks expertise, Torres said he had eight years of experience during his tenure as clerk in Bernalillo in the day-to-day operation of a municipal water system.
That system had approximately 3,700 water connections, Torres said, adding that he oversaw billing, customer complaints, service orders, equipment and planning for future projects, among other issues pertaining to the system.
While Torres laid out a simple legal path to “offering the fair market value” to Epcor, the water company has said repeatedly that it will fight the acquisition legally.
Epcor cites many examples of cities who ended up paying far more for a water system than originally proposed—also warning that if Edgewood loses its bid to take the system through eminent domain, that the town would be liable for Epcor’s legal expenses as well as its own.
Bailet said that while many municipalities do own water systems, the trend is to contract with private entities. And he said that Epcor in Edgewood “hasn’t sent a dividend check back to Canada in years,” because that money is put back into maintenance and improvements in the system.
Epcor is owned by the city of Edmonton in Canada.
“Call this craziness off before it costs the taxpayers more and it costs us more,” Bailet said.
Torres said that the town has started a “legal process to get access,” and that will now play out until the town gets “fair market value” for the system, after which the town will decide if it wants to continue with condemnation proceedings.