Political controversy, water issues mark year

File photo C2HM Hill employees work at the bottom of the intake structure shaft near the 9-foot-tall water cans that will house pumping equipment.

File photo

QCS Staff

The top story of 2013 began with a surprise vote on Sept. 26 to fire a city manager and has escalated into a recall election scheduled for Thursday against two of the three city commissioners who voted to oust the city’s chief executive.

A proposed racetrack-casino, the wreckage of the Sands Dorsey Building and the Ute Lake project continue to develop without resolution. The introduction of a major entertainment event, Rockabilly on the Route, took advantage of new nostalgia for Tucumcari’s well-preserved memories of Route 66 and the 1950s.

 

On again, off again: On Sept. 26, Tucumcari City Commissioners Jimmy Sandoval, Ernie Dominguez and Dora Salinas-McTigue voted to dismiss City Manager Doug Powers. Commissioners Robert Lumpkin and Mayor Amiel Curnutt voted against the move.

At a meeting two weeks later, however, the commission voted to reinstate Powers, with Dominguez as the swing vote.

After the vote, recall petitions circulated against Sandoval and Salinas-McTigue. The petitions soon gathered enough valid signatures to warrant a recall election.

Petitions were circulated to recall all five of Tucumcari’s city commissioners. Petitions against Curnutt and Lumpkin, however, were not turned in for evaluation, but the petition to recall Dominguez did receive enough signatures to require a recall.

Sandoval and Salinas McTigue’s recall petitions were approved in time to call an election that would not be held within 60 days of a general election, but Dominguez’s petition was not qualified in time to allow a special election, according to City Clerk Angelica Gray.

Issues that led to the vote to fire Powers continued to surface. Salinas McTigue said she based her vote on inaction involving the city’s sewage treatment plant and early closure of the first cell of the city’s new garbage landfill facility.

Sandoval’s vote, he said, was based on the city’s failure to act quickly as the Tucumcari Memorial Park Cemetery fell into disrepair, lack of growth in the city and the city’s apparent refusal to award bids to local businesses on some projects. Sandoval also cited a lack of action for improvements at the city’s public library and lack of action on the Sands Dorsey building.

In recent weeks, the city has hired a new manager for the sewage treatment plant and has prepared a new cell for the landfill. Salinas-McTigue said that allowing other cities to use the landfill was a mistake. Powers and other commissioners believe revenue from other cities is helping to fund the landfill’s expansion and will continue to defray the cost of operating the facility.

The city’s top priority in capital outlay requests is a new garbage compactor that will reduce the volume of trash deposited into the landfill.

Two alternative plans for the Sands Dorsey building’s disposal, at an estimated cost of about $500,000, have been presented as well. City officials continue to comply with requirements of the state environmental department’s solid waste division.

The new plans involve making disposal of the building part of larger projects. One would be a private-sector project; the other, a public use development, such as a central Fire Department facility.

Powers has also reported progress on cleaning up the cemetery.

 

Betting on it: City officials and residents have renewed hopes the city will host a racetrack-casino after litigation came to an unsuccessful close mid-year for a failed Raton racino. This hope, however, has hit another snag.

The New Mexico Racing Commission has raised a question about whether the state should license a sixth racetrack-casino at all. While horse owners and trainers advocate a sixth license, the racing commission has yet to conduct public sessions involving racetrack and casino owners, who are expected to opposed a sixth license.

The New Mexico Supreme Court denied Raton’s La Mesa racetrack-casino’s final appeal on May 19. The appeal disputed the state Court of Appeals’ decision in March upholding the racing commission’s nullification of La Mesa’s racing license in 2010.

The commission had awarded La Mesa the license in June 2009 over other competitors, including Quay County, but the La Mesa facility was never completed.

With La Mesa now out of the way, many competitors for the sixth license, if it is authorized, have surfaced.

Potential competitors in Clovis, Lordsburg and Hobbs have expressed interest in the sixth license, along with a second investor based in Raton.

The Tucumcari racino would be built by Coronado Partners, Inc., headed by Albuquerque auto dealer Don Chalmers.

 

Drowning in controversy: Competing interests are also at the heart of controversies centered on Ute Reservoir.

Quay County interests benefit from recreation on Ute Lake, while Curry and Roosevelt county cities, ranches and farms see Ute Lake as a source of much-needed water as their groundwater sources shrink.

While the northern and southern regions debate Ute Lake water use, the first phase of a 20-year, $550-million pipeline project designed to transport Ute Lake water to the Curry and Roosevelt counties is under construction. This is a 50-foot-wide, 90-foot-deep intake structure designed eventually to draw Ute Lake water into the southbound pipeline. As the vertical shaft of the intake structure nears completion, construction focuses on a horizontal pipeline that will direct water from the lake into the vertical shaft.

Quay County interests are still trying to stop the project before it can begin siphoning water from Ute Lake to boost dwindling supplies to communities such as Clovis and Portales, acting through the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority.

The Village of Logan has lost bids for injunctions to stop the project in both state and federal courts. The village has appealed a federal district court February denial of an injunction to the 10th Court of Appeals in Denver and is still awaiting the result of that appeal.

The village has also asked the appellate court to halt construction while the appeal is processed, but the court has not ruled on that issue, either.

Thomas Hnasko, lead attorney for Logan in the appeal, said the village has been talking about conditions for negotiating a settlement with the authority even though the case is pending in the court of appeals.

The village’s request for injunction alleges the authority violated the National Environmental Protection Act by not completing an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), Hnasko said.

Hnasko said the authority submitted only an Environmental Assessment that does not analyze the full impact should the intake structure pump out the entire 24,000 acre feet of water it is capable of removing from the lake. He said regulations from the Bureau of Reclamation also require an EIS for any major water project in the state.

Quay interests fear removing that water could reduce the lake level below the level required to maintain boating and fishing activity on the lake.

The pipeline project would eventually pump water from the Ute Reservoir to ENMWUA member communities of Clovis, Portales, Elida, Texico, Grady, Melrose and Curry and Roosevelt counties.

The construction in 2013 has included several controlled blasts, all but one of which occurred onshore in the vertical shaft. An offshore blast on Aug. 16, however, apparently killed about 900 fish. In November, the New Mexico Dept.of Game and Fish said that the underwater blast had no permanent impact on fish populations in the reservoir, but lake visitors reported dead catfish floating on the lake’s surface about two weeks after the underwater explosion.

The offshore blast created a shelf on which an intake screen and controls will be mounted for the intake’s horizontal pipeline.

Besides the court appeals, another Ute Lake question that remains open is whether another study of the lake’s capacity to meet both water and recreational needs should be conducted.

The last study, called the Whipple Report after its author John J. Whipple, completed in 1994, concluded the lake could support both uses. Quay County interests claim the study does not include the effects of the region’s 13-year drought, which some claim is the longest, most damaging drought in the region’s history.

The Ute Reservoir Water Commission, which ultimately makes such decisions, has decided against another study, saying the 1994 covers contingencies like the current drought.

Quay County interests, however, are seeking a way to finance another study on their own.

 

Lingering droughts: The debate over Ute Reservoir has been intensified by the region’s 13th year of drought.

A three-day drenching of the area in September provided some relief.

The deluge swelled tiny Pajarito Creek into a major river-size torrent and added several feet, representing thousands of acre feet to the elevation levels of both Conchas and Ute lakes.

The level of Conchas Lake rose nine feet in a little less than a week, from 4,164 feet above sea level to 4,173 feet, according to Valerie Mavis, chief natural resources specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. From July to mid-September, the lake level increased almost 20 feet, Mavis said.

At Ute Lake State Park, the water level on Sept. 9 was 3,773 feet above sea level. The level on Monday was 3,777 feet, a rise of almost 4 feet, according to Beth Wojahn of the New Mexico State Parks Department.

The raised elevation of Conchas Lake prompted the Arch Hurley Conservancy District to authorize its first allocation of water to irrigation customers in three years, but not until next year, provided the lake’s level remains above the level needed to allow the allocations.

Increased rain during the year also replenished grass at area ranches and halted reductions in cattle herds on county ranches.

In early September, The cattle population in Quay County was 31,244, up a little from the first quarter of the year but substantially lower than it was last year.

In June, the last time the assessor’s office recorded cattle herd sizes, there were about 24 percent fewer cows than at the same time two years ago, according to Quay County Assessor Janie Hoffman.

The cattle count in the first quarter of this year was 31,123. That is 21 head lower than the current number, assessor’s information shows.

Between 2009 and the first quarter of 2013, Quay County ranches reduced their cattle herds by more than one third, according to assessor’s data. Hoffman said the drought had caused steep drops in the size of local ranch herds.

From the 2009 level of 46,844 head, the first-quarter 2013 cattle count shrunk by 33.5 percent. About two-thirds of that reduction occurred between the first quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013.

 

Legal maneuvering: The case of 15-year-old accused murderer Tony Day lingered because of legal maneuvering in 2013.

The trial was delayed twice in 2013 and a new trial date has not been set.

Day is accused of the double murder of his adoptive mother Sue Day and her daughter Sherry Folts on Nov. 26, 2012,

In August, the court granted a joint motion from Defense Attorney Jeffrey Buckels and 10th Judicial District Attorney Tim Rose to hold a hearing to determine how well Day would respond to behavioral health treatment before the murder trial, contrary to the order of proceedings in New Mexico statute.

Day’s adoptive father Mike Day wants Tony tried as an adult and to face adult consequences. The elder Day said he and other family members would like to know before the trial whether Tony will be subject to adult sentencing.

Buckels said knowing in advance how Day would be sentenced would have a great effect on how the defense would proceed.

In October, however, the state Children, Youth and Families filed a motion to intervene in the case in hopes of changing the order of proceedings back to trial first, amenability to treatment proceeding later. CYFD’s lawyers contend that to do otherwise would violate the law.

CYFD’s request was rejected by the court in December.

 

Closing up shop: TeamBuilders Counseling Services, founded in Tucumcari, announced in late July it was shutting its doors after being named among 15 behavioral health providers in the state accused of overcharging state Medicaid programs for behavioral health services.

In a controversial move, the New Mexico Human Services Department abruptly froze Medicaid payments to the 15 providers in early July after an audit apparently found millions of dollars in overcharges and inconsistencies in billing by these agencies. HSD did not divulge details, saying the matter was under investigation, and turned the findings immediately over to the state Attorney General’s office for further investigation.

The state contracted with five Arizona behavioral health providers to replace the in-state behavioral health services. Since Aug. 19, Teambuilders’ former operations have been run by Turquoise Life and Wellness, a subsidiary of Lifewell Behavioral Health, based in the Phoenix, Ariz., area.

In fiscal year 2013, Teambuilders served 147 clients in Quay County, 849 individuals (children and adults) from Curry County, and 253 from Roosevelt County, according to TeamBuilders CEO Shannon Freedle.

 

Children at risk: Quay County was ranked worst in the state for risks to child well-being in a study done by Kids Count, a national child welfare research program sponsored by the Anna E. Casey Foundation.

Compounding this bad news, Quay County Health Council Coordinator Alida Brown said, is New Mexico’s rating of last among the 50 states in measures of child well-being.

Among the statistics Brown cited are these:

• 25 percent of Quay County residents live below the federal poverty level.

• 31 percent of Quay County children under age 18 — nearly one in three — live in poverty.

• 49 percent of Quay County’s children under age 5 live in poverty (compared with 33 percent in New Mexico and 26 percent in the U.S.).

• 11.4 percent of births are low birth weight.

• Infant deaths before 1 year are 9.2 per 1,000 in Quay County compared with 5.5 per 1,000 in New mexico and 6.75 per thousand nationwide.

• Births to girls age 15-17: 58 per 1,000 compared with 33 per 1,000 in New Mexico and 20 per 1,000 in the U.S.

• Little or no pre-natal care: average 46.7 percent (2005-2011), compared with 36.5 percent in New Mexico.

Quay’s teen birth rate ranked the county third in the state. Quay County ranked fifth in the state in babies born pre-term with 14.5 percent of babies from 2008-2010.

The county’s low birth weight rate placed it fourth in state. Its infant mortality rate from 2002 to 2011, 11.2 per 1,000 live births, ranked it second among the state’s counties. Its 2010 child abuse victim rate of 45.2 per 1,000 ranked the county second in the state.

Quay’s standing qualified the county to be a target zone for a CYFD initiative to bring home visitation programs to areas where child well-being risks are high and available services are low.

In July, a home visitation program was established at the Presbyterian Medical Services clinic in Tucumcari. In early September, the home visitation program, aimed at expecting parents and caregivers of children up to age 3, was working with 13 families and had 17 families referred in its first month of operation, Lola McVey, program director and parent educator, said.

 

New man in town: After a search that started in January, Mesalands Community College hired a new president, Thomas Newsom,in July, to take the college’s helm in August.

Newsom’s salary for a two-year contract is $156,00 per year.

Newsom was director of the Art Institute of Dallas. He replaced Mildred Lovato who was fired as the college’s president in 2012. The college’s board of directors has never stated a cause for Lovato’s dismissal.

Newsom said he is seeking opportunities for new dual-enrollment opportunities by which high school students earn both college and high school credit for classes taken while students are in high school.

He said he was also looking for new opportunities in wind energy, using the North American Wind Energy Training and Resource Center on campus.

In addition, Newsom said the college is also looking into possible partnerships with numerous universities across the state in order to provide local high school graduates more cost-effective opportunities to complete their general education courses at Mesalands before they enroll at four-year colleges.

Kicks on Route 66: For two days in June it was the ’50s all over again in Tucumcari for 600 out-of-towners who joined locals for Rockabilly on the Route.

The nostalgia-saturated event featured rockabilly music, new and old, and events like tire burnouts, a 1950’s fashion and beauty contest, and a vintage car show, among other events. The main attraction was Wanda Jackson, who achieved rockabilly music fame even before Elvis Presley gained stardom. Jackson, now in her 70s, matched the high energy of the other rockabilly acts featuring a new generation of musicians riding a wave of rockabilly nostalgia, combined with a 1950s revival, among young adults.

Despite the event’s success, a recommendation from the city’s Lodger’s Tax Advisory Board to provide $5,950 in lodger’s tax funds to promoting a Rockabilly on the Route event in 2014 was stranded for nearly two months as the Tucumcari City Commission wrangled over this and other funding requests recommended by the lodger’s tax board.

In the end, however, the commission granted $10,000 to promote next year’s Rockabilly event.

 

It was a very good year:

• The Logan High School Lady Longhorns basketball team won the State Championship among Class 1-A schools with a 58-51 victory over the Melrose Lady Buffaloes on March 19.

• More than 400 Tucumcari High School graduates returned for Tucumcari High School’s class reunion in early August. The Class of 1983 was in charge of the event.

• Dewayne Juarez, manager of the Love’s Travel Stop in Tucumcari, made good on his vow to kiss a pig after employees doubled their donations to the Children’s Miracle Network.

• State Rep. Dennis Roch (R-Logan) was named superintendent of Logan Schools, replacing Johnnie Cain, who became superintendent of Portales Schools. Roch took his new job on Aug. 19.

• Tim Abbott of Midland, Texas, became the interim intercollegiate rodeo coach at Mesalands Community College for the 2013 season in August. Staci Stanbrough of Capitan was named Abbott’s assistant and serves on Mesalands’ Animal Science faculty.

• Tom Dominguez, who had been Quay County’s agricultural extension agent for New Mexico State University for the past six years, left his post on Aug. 30. His replacement has not been hired. Dominguez now holds a comparable position in Alamogordo.

• A group of about 30 forward-looking individuals gathered for Empowering the Land, an event that encouraged exploring new ways of thinking about farming, manufacturing and doing business to benefit local economies. One of the key words in the weekend event was “sustainability,” the idea that production should be designed to sustain itself by making minimal use of resources and by recycling as much as possible. The Greater Tucumcari Economic Development Corporation hosted the event, which was organized by local citizens, including Hockaday and Marie Nava, a Tucumcari area farmer.

• A small kitten got more than it bargained for in October when its dash for shelter led to a death-defying, 90-foot plunge down the vertical shaft for the Ute Lake Intake Structure. The kitten survived the tumble apparently unharmed and found a new owner, who named her Petty, after the composer of the rock tune “Free Fallin’.”

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