A proposed loan that would extend an existing property tax past its original end date has county taxpayers voicing their concerns to a local elected board — just not the right board.
Nearly 100 people have sent written public comments to the Valencia County Commission opposing the Valencia Soil and Wjuater Conservation District’s plan to borrow $540,000 from the New Mexico Finance Authority for a second building at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.
The crux of their objections is the loan will extend the current quarter mill levy tax indefinitely, instead of it ending in 2023. The levy was passed in 2013 and set to run for 10 years, unless the district was indebted.
Many taxpayers saw the timing of the upcoming loan request as being underhanded and deceitful on the part of the district.
Vicki Husbands, a resident of Bosque, pointed out she took the time in 2019 to vote against the district’s proposed permanent one mill levy.
“The (2019) mill levy was soundly defeated, yet, some of the (VSWCD) board of supervisors have now found a way to try and extend the mill levy by borrowing money …,” Husbands wrote to the county commission. “Please support the will of the people by telling the state of New Mexico that you oppose the underhanded tactics of the VSWCD to extend the mill levy.”
VSWCD Manager Andrew Hautzinger said the second building at Whitfield is very much a long standing effort of the board. In the district’s mill levy plan, approved in 2015, notes a second building for Whitfield’s Visitor and Education Center has been planned since 2005.
Hautzinger said when the center was built in 2009, it was actually downsized due to funding constraints.
“The visitor center has become the district’s office. We have five staff members working out of there,” he said. “When you have people trying to do a public event, Zoom calls, webinars, it’s not a conducive environment for productive work.”
A second building would provide office space for staff, freeing up the visitor center to be an education space, as intended, as well as give the district space for larger events, once those are allowed again.
“It gives us the capacity of have more events and activities without distracting staff,” he said.
The district has requested capital outlay funds for a second building from the Legislature since the first building was completed, and has received $175,000, the manager said, noting the first allocation didn’t come until 2018.
Also opposing the loan are current VSWCD board member Gail Goodman and former board member Jim Lane.
Goodman, who was elected to the board in the same 2019 election the one mill failed — a measure she publicly opposed — supported the commission’s resolution opposing the loan, which ultimately approved 4-1.
“The claim that the district must go into debt to build a second building …. rings hollow,” Goodman wrote.
She continued, saying the district spends about $271,000 for “generous salaries” for the five full-time and one part-time district employee while the district receives about $350,000 a year from the existing mill levy.
“I have no idea what these people do for eight hours a day, five days a week,” Goodman wrote. “Whitfield could be a wonderful place if it were better managed. Proper budgeting over the next three years could put a spacious expansion on the existing building.”
Lane was also critical of what he called “extravagant personnel salaries,” in his letter to the commission opposing the loan.
“All salaries and added positions were approved by the [sic] VCSWCD board members,” Lane wrote. “The mill levy funds can be spent as they see fit. They control their budget. What benefits have you received for your mill levy taxes?”
VSWCD vice chairwoman Teresa Smith de Cherif said an organization run by Lane benefited from the current mill levy.
“It’s very curious that Jim is against us having the mill levy when the Meadow Lake Parks Area Association (an outdoor recreation area established by Lane and other Meadow Lake community members) received a grant from us,” de Cherif said. “He was only too happy to receive taxpayer money for that.”
Board President Abel Camarena said he asked to make a brief, formal presentation to the Valencia County Commission about the loan and building project, but was told by county attorney Dave Pato the commissioners weren’t “amenable” to the idea.
“But the district could email comments like everyone else, which we did. We were denied the chance to rebut, answer questions,” Camarena said. “The commission heard from 47 people (on Nov. 18) but no one spoke at the district’s meeting three days later.”
Hautzinger said with the exception of comments made by Goodman during board meetings, no one has contacted the district directly in opposition to the loan. The people objecting to the loan have only addressed the county commission, which does not have jurisdiction over the VSWCD.
County Commission Chairman Jhonathan Aragon said while the resolution is essentially symbolic, the commission has a duty to its constituents that overlap with those of the district.
“The New Mexico Finance Authority might take it into consideration, like any public comment, or not,” Aragon said. “It doesn’t give it special legal weight; it certainly may look like more. It’s a formal step rather than an informal one.”
Commissioner Charles Eaton was the only commissioner to vote against the resolution, saying he didn’t have enough information to state a position.
“We’ve been consistent in where we’re coming from, even before the 2013 mill levy,” Camarena said. “I invite anyone to come to us and have a fuller understanding about what we do. If people are going to come camp on our doorstep and tell us their issues, great. But so far, not one person has come to us.”
The loan application to NMFA must be accompanied by a contract for construction, Camarena said, which is currently out for request for proposal. The loan packet will be submitted sometime in late February or early March, he said, and the length of the loan will be set by the amortization schedule dictated by the finance authority.
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.