BELEN — The Belen City Council adopted amendments to several ordinances last week to include reinstatement of late fees for utility bills, alcohol use in municipal-owned buildings or property and fees for registering vacant or foreclosed structures.

Late fees reinstated

With a 3-1 vote, the council approved amending the city’s Utility Rates and Charges ordinance, reinstating late fees for those who don’t pay their utility bills on time.

This new council reversed the decision of the prior council, which, in April 2015, decided to do away with the late fees. Councilors Danny Bernal Jr., Robert Noblin and Ronnie Torres voted to approve the amendment to the ordinance, while Councilor Frank Ortega voted against it. The amended ordinance will be in affect in March.

Five years ago, when the council eliminated the late fees, three of the four councilors said they wanted to help residents who were on fixed incomes.

During last week’s meeting, Ortega echoed what he said in 2015, saying his concern was the same.

“This will hurt low-income people and those on fixed incomes and living on Social Security,” Ortega said.

City Manager Andrew DiCamillo said those who are late on their utility payments to the city will pay 10 percent of their bill in late fees, which he said would be an average of $10.

DiCamillo estimates the city would take in about $90,000 a year in late fees, which could go toward the water enterprise fund. He said the money would help to replace water meters, buy equipment and even pay for emergency water leaks.

“I remember when it happened, and I asked (the former city manager) if it decreased the amount of late payments to the city,” Torres said. “It was the exact opposite. More people were not paying their bills on time.”

Abandoned building fee

With a unanimous vote, the city council approved amending the city’s Vacant or Foreclosed Structure Registration Fee ordinance by substituting the annual flat rate registration fee to a per square footage fee structure.

The ordinance’s purpose is to keep a record of vacant buildings in Belen, and requires owners to register their buildings with the city.

The amendment to the ordinance states the owner of a vacant building will pay a registration fee of .25 cents per square foot, rather than the previous $25 flat fee.

For example, if a property owner has a vacant building that is 2,000 square feet, he or she would have to pay an annual fee of $500.

Steven Tomita, the city’s planning and economic development director, said the new fee structure is to create an incentive for property owners to do something with their building — to sell it or to get it occupied.

“The current $25 fee isn’t an incentive for them to register,” Tomita said. “We’re hoping this new fee structure will change that.”

While Tomita hopes the amendment to the ordinance will get more property owners to register their buildings with the city, he is concerned that some are not using their structures for its intended purpose.

“They are getting around it by saying their using it for storing different things in there,” Tomita said. “There’s nothing in the ordinance that addresses that type of storage. They’re saying it’s not vacant so they’re getting around that clause.”

He says that’s something that will need to be addressed in the city’s building maintenance ordinance.

Failure to file the registration empowers the city to file a lien on the property. Failure to comply with the vacant property ordinance includes a written warning for the first offense, $300 for the second offense after 90 days, and $500 for a filing containing materially false statements. A $100 fee will be charged for anyone who wants to file an appeal.

The new annual registration fee will immediately be imposed when the property owner re-registers the property.
Alcohol use in municipal buildings and property

The councilors also approved an amendment to the Alcoholic Beverages in Municipal Buildings and on Municipal Property ordinance, allowing for such activity in certain situations.

Councilors Bernal, Noblin and Torres voted to approve the amendments, while Ortega voted against it.

Tomita said the amended ordinance would allow alcohol to be served, but only if the interested party obtains the required permit and if it’s a fully-licensed business activity.

“This means it could be in conjunction with a restaurant or wine tasting on tables on a sidewalk with meals,” Tomita explained. “Private events could occur at city-owned properties such as the Belen Business Center and at the Belen Harvey House Museum.”

Tomita said these events would permit alcohol would be one-time, special or annual events in which the organizer would have to receive a permit and be required to have the proper insurance. He also said the amendment to the ordinance would require a licensed server would have to be hired to serve the alcohol.

Ortega said he has apprehensions about the liability the city would take on for this type of activity. He is concerned about police overtime for these events and possible DWI infractions.

“How are we going to prevent this,” Ortega said. “And, we can still face tort claims even if they have insurance. They’ll have to have security, and a lot of times, things do happen and we’ll be held responsible.”

Bernal said he hopes allowing alcohol at private events would allow business to grow in the Hub City.

“It’s a good choice for the council,” Bernal said. “I’m not sure about DWIs; those will continue, but hopefully this is a strong ordinance and our police can enforce that.”

When Noblin asked Belen Police Chief James Harris if he sees a problem with the ordinance, the top cop said as long as officers are away of it, they would pass by the venue more frequently.

“I don’t see an issue with it,” Harris said.

While the council approved the amendment to the ordinance, Tomita is currently working on the permit process.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.