An ongoing disagreement between the Valencia County Commission and its trash hauler about the terms of the contract doesn’t seem to be much closer to resolution.

For the last few months, commissioners have expressed concern that Universal Waste Services, the company hired for residential trash pick up in the unincorporated areas of the county, isn’t living up to the promises it made.

The two key points of contention are whether a retrofitted storage shed at the Conejo Convenience Center on Manzano Expressway qualifies as the business office UWS promised, and if the company is obligated to store and maintain its equipment somewhere in the county.

County Attorney Dave Pato said he and Valencia County Manager Danny Monette met with UWS representatives, and the company maintains it is in full compliance with the terms of the contract.

In an attempt to assuage the county’s concerns, Pato said UWS identified a location in the city of Rio Communities where it plans to put an office by January 2021 in order to meet the terms of the contract it has with the city.

In March, the Rio Communities councilors voted unanimously to award UWS an exclusive, four-year trash contract.

“At the Rio Communities property, they would take payments and complaints, and store equipment,” the attorney said. “We asked for clarification but we don’t know if they will process payments and complaints there. I would say this is very positive. It addresses the concerns of storing vehicles and equipment in the county, and sets up a business office as previously discussed.”

The property UWS showed Pato and Monette is at 2286 N.M. 304. County property tax records show the eight-tenths of an acre at that address is owned by Cylinder Exchange Service in Alamogordo.

Commissioner David Hyder said in UWS’ own proposal, the company stated it anticipated the Valencia County office would serve as its New Mexico headquarters.

“The project included the purchase of land for a comprehensive facility, with offices and a fleet yard. They said they intend to fully remodel the office at Conejo,” Hyder said. “We’ve been at this a little over a year. They talked about wanting Valencia County to shine but here we are, still fighting about this because they are based in Bernalillo.”

Commissioner Charles Eaton said if the county was now amending the contract simply to fulfill Universal’s desires, that might have dissuaded other companies from responding to the initial request for proposal in 2017.

PDF: UWS Contract with Valencia County

“The fee structure at Conejo (which is operated by UWS) differs from week to week. It’s not consistent,” Eaton said. “We amended it a couple years ago and it’s led to inconsistency.”

Commission Chairman Jhonathan Aragon said he respectfully disagreed with Eaton’s assessment.

“Last time I checked, Rio Communities was in the county lines. You are bringing up old issues,” Aragon said. “UWS does seem to want to address these issues. If they want to have a yard in Rio Communities, we’re going to have a hard time going back and telling them where we want them to put a yard.”

Pato said according to the proposal submitted by UWS, the company would remodel the existing building at Conejo, as well as create an operations center and supervisor’s office.

The attorney said the idea behind the improvements was to leave the county with something of value once the eight-year contract had run its course. While UWS operates Conejo, the county still owns the property.

“By putting the office in Rio Communities, the county won’t benefit, which certainly gives credence to Commissioner Eaton’s argument that the county is not getting the bargain it negotiated,” Pato said. “That said, it’s certainly up to the board to allow it or you can move ahead with default (of the contract). You can say these improvements were not made; they are in the proposal and incorporated by reference in the contract.”

Aragon said he, personally, wasn’t ready to dump hundreds of thousands of county dollars back into operating Conejo.

“I do think there is a great benefit to the county from this contract,” the chairman said. “All customers can get service if they want it and at the same cost.”

He noted that if he were a business owner, he would be hesitant to store vehicles and equipment at Conejo since UWS has said it is vandalized and broken into frequently.

“They say they can’t even keep a roll of toilet paper out there,” he said.

According to reports from the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office for 2018, the first year Universal operated the convenience center, there were no criminal complaints made at Conejo.

In 2019, there were four reports — two for assault, one for burglary and one for larceny.

Both of the assault reports involved Mitchell Blackburn, one of the owners of UWS. In April, Blackburn reported a man went to Conejo with a Universal trash cans but there was no record he paid for service, so Blackburn kept the can.

As he was leaving the facility, the man said he’d “remember” Blackburn, which he felt was a threat.

The second assault report was in June, when Blackburn got in a verbal altercation with a man who was attempting to dump ash, and said he would return with a shotgun and shoot the owner.

In October, the office at Conejo was broken into. A pair of work boots worth about $50, a small cooking grill and about 20 rolls of toilet paper were reported stolen. The recycling shed was also broken into, but it was unclear if anything was taken.

The final incident in 2019 was in November, when an employee at the center reported a man dumping trash had three metal trash bins belonging to UWS but didn’t have an account with the company. The man fled the scene with the bins.

There were no reports for 2020.

Lina Benavidez, the public works director for the county, reviewed emails to her department for the last two years at the request of the News-Bulletin and found no complaints from UWS about security issues at Conejo.

When the county still ran the facility in 2017, there was one report filed — someone cut the fence on the east side of the center and stole scrap metal. The employee who made the report said that kind of theft had happened before.

The commission voted 3-2 to wait for clarification from UWS as to whether it would process payments and complaints at the Rio Communities site. Eaton and Hyder voted no, while Aragon and commissioners Gerard Saiz and Tom Mraz voted yes.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.