A Quarter of a Million Dollar Gas Bill, a Fire Truck, and Water Quality Amongst the Issues Faced by the Town Council

On March 07, 2023, the Mountainair Town Council had two meetings: (1) a regular meeting of the council; and, (2), a special meeting concerning the grievance filed by Michael Shumate. During the first meeting, the council addressed how it would purchase a fire truck and discussed a recent spike in natural gas prices.

Santee Cooper
Photo by American Public Power Association / Unsplash

Gas Prices

Prior to the meeting, members of the audience discussed with the mayor, Peter Nieto, and the town clerk, Dennis Fulfer, the dramatic increase in the cost of residents’ gas bills. It turned out that those bills not only affected residents but also the town itself. Fulfer explained that natural gas prices had skyrocketed because of a recent arctic blast and the impact of the war in Ukraine. Speculation on commodities markets drove natural gas prices to roughly $33 per mmBTU (million British Thermal Units) on the El Paso-San Juan Basin Market (commodity ticker: RMTEPSJ) in January 2023. See Megan K. Olsen, San Juan Basin residents see sharp spike in natural gas bills, Durango Herald (Jan. 12, 2023).

During the meeting, Mayor Peter Nieto and Fulfer explained that because of the spike in gas prices, the town’s natural gas bill went from roughly $40,000 to $240,000. “And I know people are saying that their bills are high,” Nieto said, “We did not pass that [increase in natural gas costs for Mountainair] on to the customer. We actually absorb that. And that’s what we need to talk about at the next meeting to see what the options are going to be what we plan to do.”

Fulfer described the impact of the natural gas price spike on the town. “In our ordinance, we do have a mechanism to pass [the natural gas cost spike] on. If the San Juan index goes above $5.80, we can pass that on to the customer. We didn’t. We might have to because we’re in the hole now. It devastated our budget and our cash supplies there.”

Councilor Ernie Lopez asked Fulfer to verify that the $240,000 natural gas bill was a onetime occurrence. Fulfer did so, saying he expected the town to have a bill of $65,000 for the next month. Nieto said, “So I don’t want people to go out and say, Oh, my God, they’re gonna raise our rates by six times. Like that’s not the case. So please don’t like cause public outcry. Let us try to figure this out.”

Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash

Emergency Medical Services

EMS Director Ramona Vickrey provided a report to the town council regarding issues experienced by the town’s EMS service due to lack of drivers. Vickrey said that the town was losing money for transporting patients because it could not transport them their full distance for medical care. Vickrey explained that drivers only needed a Certified Emergency Vehicle Operator (CEVO) certification, a driver’s license, and CPR training to volunteer with the town.

Todd Brogowski/Mountainair Dispatch

NMED Review of Mountainair Water System

Fulfer reported on a recent inspection of Mountainair’s water system by the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED). According to Fulfer, during NMED’s 2020 inspection, Mountainair had compliance issues. First, there was no air gap in the potable water system, which meant that there could be backflow of non-potable water contaminating the potable water. Second, cross-contamination of potable and non-potable water occurred because of a hose that also touched the ground. Fulfer said that the town fixed these issues for the 2022 inspection by NMED.

The NMED Town of Mountainair 2022 Consumer Confidence Report (PDF) supports Fulfer’s statement. NMED reported that there were no violations as part of its audit of the Mountainair well water system. It also showed no contamination from fecal coliform, important in an area with a substantial amount of livestock. NMED reported on small amounts of the following contaminants in the water, but stated that none were at a level to be considered dangerous or a violation of NMED policy.

Contaminants in Mountainair Water Supply according to NMED

  • Chlorine
  • Haloacetic Acids
  • Trihalomethanes
  • Arsenic
  • Barium
  • Chromium
  • Flouride
  • Nitrates
  • Alpha emitters (radioactive materials that emit alpha rays, such as polonium and americium)
  • Radium
  • Uranium
  • Copper
  • Lead

Mountainair Easter Events

Mayor Nieto said that the town was in discussion with local priests and reverends to get donations for the town’s Easter egg hunt. The town Easter egg hunt is planned for April 08, 2023 at the Mountainair football field. Nieto said that the First Assembly of God Church (referring to Mountainair First Assembly Church) had donated 5,000 eggs for the Easter egg hunt.

Street with ruined houses
Photo by Nadiia Ganzhyi / Unsplash

Potential Crackdown on Code Violations

Nieto noted that there were multiple properties that needed to clean up garbage and other debris. “… [There’s] a lot of properties in town, that right now they just have a lot of stuff, broken vehicles, trash in the right of way of the town. And so we are going to be sending out letters [regarding alleged code non-compliance]….”

Nieto said the town was moving toward more enforcement of code violations not only because the trash was unsightly but also because “it’s more of a fire hazard and a fire danger.” Earlier during the meeting, Nieto reminded the audience that the town still had tickets available for residents to use to drop off trash at the EVSWA transfer station without cost.

Purchase of a Fire Truck

Town Clerk Fulfer explained that the town had approved the purchase of a fire truck at a cost of approximately $351,000. To finance this purchase, the town intended to use a loan from the state. Because the state wanted surety that the town would repay the loan, Fulfer explained, the New Mexico Finance Authority (NMFA) required the town to adopt a resolution officially approving the loan for financing the purchase of the fire truck and for what the state called an “intercept agreement.” Fulfer explained that the intercept agreement referred to a process where the state would divert $20,000 of funding intended for the Mountainair Fire Department to pay back the fire truck loan. “So we don’t have to like actually run it through our books and send it back to the state. They’re just going to skim it off,” Fulfer explained.

Councilor Lopez said he believed the intercept agreement would be better for the town because the cash used for loan payments would not show up as part of the town’s finances. Appearing telephonically, town attorney William Zarr counseled that the resolution approving the loan repayment intercept agreement would be impossible to repeal under state law so long as there was an outstanding balance on the loan. The town council approved the resolution unanimously. With this matter resolved, and with no public comment sought, the council agreed to adjourn their regular meeting and then return to a special meeting of the town council addressing the Michael Shumate grievance.

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