Rio Arriba County Acknowledges its Solid Waste Ordinance is “Arbitrary and Capricious”

By KAY MATTHEWS

Five months ago, at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, Antonio “Ike” DeVargas addressed the County Commission with his allegations that the North Central Solid Waste Authority has committed “malfeasance, misappropriated public money, billed and collected money for services not rendered, and committed other non-specified illegal acts.” (See September 6, 2021 La Jicarita article.) 

Last Tuesday, January 25, he again addressed the Commission about North Central, but this time the meeting was held at the Emilio Naranjo Administrative Building in Española, named for the former patrón of Rio Arriba County, whose reign of terror and corruption in the 1970s and 80s—as sheriff and in other positions—brought DeVargas and others before the County Commission in 2019 to protest the name change (it obviously went through). (See August 23, 2019 La Jicarita article.) 

While not an auspicious setting for this second attempt to convince the county to either fix the inequities of North Central or do away with the Ordinance that established it back in 2004, Commissioners James Martinez, Christine Bustos, and Moises Morales, along with County Manager Lucia Sanchez, readily acknowledged that the solid waste system is not working and needs to be fixed.

During his presentation, DeVargas stated that there are currently 1,038 delinquent accounts; neither Rio Arriba County nor the North Central Authority knows how many of these delinquencies are because the party is deceased or is no longer living at the address. The county has failed to follow Section 10 of Ordinance 97-04 that requires the county manager to file notice of delinquency before issuing liens and to hear any complaints or grievances within 15 days. Without a code enforcement officer to investigate these delinquencies there is no way for the county to follow proper procedure.

DeVargas read from the opening paragraph of the Ordinance: “The ordinance is intended to eliminate illegal dumping and accumulation of solid waste, to preserve and protect public health and the environment, and institute administrative procedures to effectively manage solid waste generated in the unincorporated areas of Rio Arriba County.” He then passed out photos of what the county actually looks like, with garbage dumped in arroyos and trash accumulated in residents’ yards. Last year, the communities near La Madera got together and with the help of Taos County and Acequia and Aquifer Water Watchers cleaned up 6,000 pounds of waste from area arroyos.

DeVargas asked the commissioners to get rid of the liens against county citizens and then start from scratch: if the North Central Authority is not doing its job let’s figure out a better way to tackle the solid waste problems in Rio Arriba County. To emphasize that North Central is indeed “not doing its job” he read from a newspaper article that stated, “If this [North Central] was a commercial entity I’d say the Authority is bankrupt.” The Authority serves Rio Arriba County, the city of Española, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, and Santa Clara Pueblo under a Joint Powers Agreement that stipulates it is to be funded by revenues generated from user fees. DeVargas pointed out that between the years of 2008 and 2012 Rio Arriba County budgeted $3.8 million for the Authority, what he referred to as taxation without representation: “Nobody voted for this Authority.”

This time around DeVargas got a swift response from Commissioner Morales: “We developed the Ordinance and we need to come up with the solutions to this situation.” He also claimed that the current trash situation is partly the fault of the Forest Service, which closed its dumps on the federal lands that constitute much of Rio Arriba County.

Commissioner Bustos agreed that the Ordinance is old and needs to be upgraded, but because the county is a party to a joint powers agreement all the parties need to come together to address the issues. Commissioner Martinez, who serves on the board of the JPA, stated that the board has acknowledged the need for an update of the Ordinance, but also cautioned that forgiving liens is unfair to those who have faithfully paid their fees for service over many years.

County Manager Lucia Sanchez, who’s only served in this position for seven months (she was previously the County Planner), provided the most robust response to DeVargas’s complaints and left him and his supporters feeling that appropriate actions will actually be taken. She told DeVargas that as County Planner she had a code enforcement officer who made sure residences were tied to trash accounts and now as County Manager will work to provide adequate code enforcement.

“The Ordinance is arbitrary and capricious and unenforceable,” she said, and gives too much power to the county manager. She and her team have given it a “broad brush” review and now need to figure out how to dissolve it with the JPA partners. “We are not in the business of taking people’s land.”

In the meantime, while the Ordinance remains extant, she’s trying to fix current problems as best she can. The Alcalde Transfer Station (besides curb side pickup the Authority has transfer stations in Alcalde, Española, and Truchas) has been cleaned up and repaired and a burn station has been set up on Ohkay Owingeh, paid for with capital outlay monies. Additional federal monies are expected via the Congressional infrastructure bill that will help with solid waste collection centers and other improvements.

She thanked DeVargas for his input on the Authority and assured him she is making it a top priority. He told her she was a breath of fresh air. So now we’ll wait and see if the powers that be decide an Authority “fix” is adequate or that it’s indeed time to start from scratch—and what that’s going to look like.

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