By KAY MATTHEWS
The Rio Grande Sun has run multiple stories covering the multiple woes of the North Central Solid Waste Authority, which picks up people’s trash in Española, Rio Arriba County, Ohkay Owingeh, and Santa Clara: broken down garbage trucks; missing payments; lack of convenience stations; financial mismanagement; and Environment Department violations.
Last Tuesday, August 31, Antonio “Ike” DeVargas, got on the agenda of the Rio Arriba County Commission meeting to present an even longer tale of woe about the Authority, so I decided it was time for La Jicarita to run a story. DeVargas opened his presentation by passing out to the commissioners a “Public Notice” flier the Authority had sent out to customers about which he said, “When I read this document it made me feel like I live in China or North Korea.” The flier states that all county residents are “Mandated” (in quotes, bold, and underlined) to pay the solid waste fees, not for “service” but “for the solid waste system in place.” It goes on to say that the ordinance establishing the Authority (passed in 1999) authorizes it to “assign an account for any habitable dwelling” within the county (added emphasis). Finally, it states that a signature is not required to execute a valid agreement.
That raised red flags for DeVargas. The Authority’s mandate to require residents to pay solid waste fees whether they actually utilize the system, or even sign for it, has resulted in a long list—which DeVargas acquired—of hundreds of residents with delinquent accounts because there is no “habitable” dwelling on the property—not even a dog house—or the inhabitant is not living on the property and therefore not generating trash, or the inhabitant is dead. Once these delinquent accounts accrue, a lien is placed on the property, with a four-year limit (although penalties and taxes can still accrue). The liens state that the payment is for “pickup, transport, and treatment,” none of which applies when there is no generated trash. DeVargas emphasized that a lien should be on an inhabitant, not the land: “The land lives forever and doesn’t produce trash.”
Residents pay a yearly fee of $230 to the Authority. From 2008 to 2012 Rio Arriba County paid a $4 million subsidy to the Authority, essentially a double tax on county residents for a “system” many of them don’t use. Incidentally, I saw Taos County Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell a few days after I attended the Rio Arriba County meeting and she told me Taos County allows exemptions for its solid waste program under certain circumstances. In 2013 the Authority amended its bylaws to address this issue of exemptions, such as seasonable homes and vacant land, but redefined “habitable” to mean a home with electricity. So any home, whether it generates trash or not, is considered habitable if it has power. The then Authority manager Gino Romero admitted that establishing which houses qualify for exemptions was an arduous process, which is made very clear by the long lists of delinquencies (over 1,000) DeVargas provided that reveal uninhabited properties and dead people. (Under Romero’s “leadership,” “P[p]oor accounting, lack of checks and balances, missing documents and an inability to balance ledgers” was rampant, according to the Rio Grande Sun. The former manager, Joseph Lewandowski, left his job in 2009 with the Authority $2.3 million in debt.)
DeVargas shared stories of local Española businesses that have trash accounts with MCT, a state-wide service, which provides better service for less money. They are still required to pay Authority fees. DeVargas told the commissioners, “The Authority is a monopoly, extorting its customers.”
Peter Romero, who attended DeVargas’s presentation, told DeVargas his sad story of finding out a lien had been placed on his property, where he hadn’t resided for years because of a medical condition. He’d been staying his with son in Phoenix so he could attend the Mayo Clinic, and when he tried to get a mortgage on a different property he owned to pay for a liver transplant he was denied because of the lien. He had to hire attorney Richard Rosenstock to negotiate with the Authority and release him from the lien.
In 2019 DeVargas and Donald Orie, both of whom had liens put on their properties, collected 527 signatures on a petition calling for a grand jury investigation of the Authority. The petition alleges the Authority committed “malfeasance, misappropriated public money, billed and collected money for services not rendered, and committed other non-specified illegal acts.” The petition was filed in First Judicial District Court and on November 8 Judge Jason Linyard announced he would convene a special grand jury (a sitting grand jury would not have enough time) to investigate the allegations. The judge predicted the jury would be empaneled by February of 2020, but the case has been put on hold due to the outbreak of the Corona virus.
DeVargas wants the county to discard the liens and then repeal Rio Arriba County Ordinance 97-04 and start from scratch with community input. He’s suggested that the county implement a fee-for-service system where residents can pay a flat fee to bring trash to a transfer station. Currently, those who qualify for self haul (those who live on roads that the trucks are too big to access or in distant areas where the county can’t provide curb-side pick-up) take their trash to the existing transfer stations (in Española, Truchas, and Alcalde) for about half the fee of curb-side pickup. Like the Taos County system, they’re provided with punch cards to regulate the amount of trash they can deposit. Wilfredo Vigil, who also attended the commission meeting, told me when he first got his card it allowed 18 punches, which he assumed meant he would only be allowed 18 visits, until he inquired and was told he was allowed to deposit up to three bags of trash a week without a punch on his card.
The response from the county commissioners was a mixture of “we hear your pain” and “I wasn’t on the commission when the ordinance was passed,” except, of course, for Moises Morales, who was on that commission. Commission chair James Martinez pointed out that the county doesn’t run or dictate the Authority, because of the Joint Powers Agreement signed by the city, county, and pueblos, but DeVargas believes that because the county created the Authority it can repeal the Ordinance. Martinez, who also serves on the Authority’s Board of Directors (as does the new county manager Lucia Sanchez), said that the board is getting new members and is reviewing policies, operations, and payments. Manager Sanchez stated that the Authority is one of her three main concerns, as is the overall problem of trash on the federal lands that surround the county.
DeVargas is still hopeful a grand jury will be empaneled to investigate the long history of the Authority’s incompetence and malfeasance. Over these years the Rio Grande Sun has done an admirable job of reporting, in hundreds of articles, on every bureaucratic bungle of this troubled agency, and the county commission has done nothing. We’ll have to wait and see if this time it decides it’s time.
Addendum: Yet another article about the Authority appeared in last week’s Rio Grande Sun about its newly purchased used trucks, an eleven per cent increase in trash fees, and Lewandowski’s (who returned to the Authority) attempts to clear up debt.