RIO COMMUNITIES — Even before the city of Rio Communities incorporated, residents said their No. 1 priority was law enforcement.

Now, more than nine years later, their wish is coming true with a new police department in the works and a new 3.5 mill tax levy to pay for it.

The Rio Communities Council voted unanimously, 3-0, to approve the property tax at its July 25 meeting.

“It’s time for the community to have what they’ve asked for,” said Rio Communities Mayor Joshua Ramsell after the city council vote.

Rio Communities City Manager Martin Moore said the mill levy, which is only being imposed on residential property owners, will bring about $273,348 a year more to help pay for the new police department.

Currently, residential property owners are paying on a 2.75 mill levy. With the new 3.5 mill, they will now pay a total of 6.25 mills.

The average residential property owner, with a home worth $158,000 and an assessed value of $52,667, will now pay about $184.30 more a year in property taxes, or $15.36 a month.

On the higher side, Moore said a property owner who has a $600,000 house will pay about $30 a month more in taxes.

The council decided not to implement the new tax levy on commercial properties in Rio Communities because there currently isn’t that many in the city, Moore said.

“We don’t have much in the way of valuation in the city from commercial and retail (properties),” the city manager said. “We’re trying to bring that base back, but the bulk of our potential is residential.”

The city, which incorporated in 2013, has had an agreement for law enforcement services with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, but when the city was informed by Sheriff Denise Vigil that her office couldn’t continue the contract after this current fiscal year, Moore and the council began researching how to pay for and form its own police department.

“When that transition happens, we’ll have that $150,000 a year that’s currently going for the deputy,” said Moore of what the city pays for the deputy, his vehicle, fuel, overtime and insurance. “That money will be available to us in July 2023.”

Moore said the new tax revenue will pay for the salaries of two certified police officers and an administrative assistant, who will also be an evidence technician. The police chief, Moore said, will be paid from the savings the city will realize from not having to pay for the VCSO deputy.

“In order to be able to do that, we have the ability to cover the start-up costs, about $350,000, which is not part of the mill levy increase,” the city manager said.

The city is also working with the New Mexico Finance Authority to try and save money on police units, Moore said.

Rio Communities Councilor Peggy Gutjahr, who wasn’t at last week’s meeting and didn’t vote on the issue, told the News-Bulletin the city’s start-up budget has money to “refit a room” for the new police station in the back area of the Rio Communities City Hall complex.

The council also approved a $35,000 contract with Larry Cearley, a retired Magdelena marshal, who has 38 years of law enforcement experience to help form the new department.

Moore said Cearley will help by starting the police department’s standard operating procedures, with the new police chief finalizing the policies.

Cearley will be working on an agreement for housing at the Valencia County Detention Center, a transition with Valencia Emergency Regional Communication Center, develop office space for a four-person department, ordering equipment, including weapons, and development of a job description and recruitment.

Moore said he hopes a new police chief can be sworn in by January 2023 if not sooner, and the two officers hired by July 2023.

“We’ve actually looked into it two or three times, but the money just wasn’t there,” Councilor Jim Winters told the News-Bulletin about forming a police department. “It’s been a continuous thing because that’s been the No. 1 issue for residents.”

Gutjahr said as the city’s revenues continue to increase each year, the council was thinking it was at the point to contract with the sheriff’s office for a second deputy. Instead, she said, it’s time the city to form it’s own police department.

In the past few years, Moore said the city, which has a population of about 5,000 residents, has experienced a slight increase in residential burglaries, domestic incidents and car thefts.

While the city council held at least two special meetings about the possibility of forming a police department and implementing a new mill levy before its decision last week, there was little to none public participation or comments on the issue.

“We have had some business owners and some residents in the last couple of months telling us we needed to do something, that we needed more law enforcement,” Moore said. “We were having a lot more people contact us individually.

“The city of Rio Communities is now in a position of being able to do what it said it was going to do,” the city manager said. “We were asked to take a look at getting a police department in here. It was a very strong push.”

“This is the least expensive way that we can do that,” Winters said, “and still provide the service because we want someone who can stop and talk to our residents.”

Moore said forming a new police department in Rio Communities will hopefully inspire economic development.

“Because of the lack of law enforcement, businesses have been very reluctant to coming here,” Moore said.

“We’re in a relatively small area, and our crime rate is less than Belen, and more equivalent to that of Bosque Farms,” Gutjahr said.

“Quality of life can be a great recruiting tool,” Moore said about the city. “We’re fairly confident that we can get people here who are already certified.”

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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.