Town: “It’s Not Our Fault”

By: Bill Whaley
4 September, 2015

(Editor’s Note: I herewith apologize for the long winded narrative below and my unceasing addiction to local politics.  But when the town screws over my merchant friends, I feel compelled to sing of the “unjust” and “incompetent” ways at Town hall. Yes, I know there’s nothing new under the sun.) 

“I got your message re: building inspector; am appreciative, Louis & Rick are ‘on it’ and I’ll be following up as well.” Fritz Hahn

The following exchange and analysis refers to the inability of the Town’s Planning Department to check plans and inspect building projects, which negatively affect economic development. I know of two projects that have been delayed by the Town Plannng Department because the Town refuses to hire a qualified building inspector. Now the Town is advising developers to go to Santa Fe and/or Albuquerque and visit with the state’s Construction Industries Division to get their plans checked and projects inspected.

9/4/15

To Councilor Fritz Hahn:

At the latest P&Z meeting, you and Louis, the Town of Taos Planning Director, made up this excuse about not hiring a qualified building inspector because “nobody could pass the test.” Both you and Louis indicated that local governments, towns and villages, in northern New Mexico were suffering a deficit of “building inspectors” because of new tough requirements for the position and due to the cost of hiring an inspector.

But this claim is utter nonsense.

First of all the alleged “new requirements” you referred to don’t go into effect until 2018, according to the County. Secondly, Taos County’s Planning Director Edward Vigil told me that three employees at the County are qualified “commercial and residential” building inspectors. Commissioner Fambro told former Town Councilor Gene Sanchez that the county could check the plans and do the job. Director Vigil said the County could do the job if Commissioners and Councilors signed off on an “MOU.”

You can’t blame this snafu and misrepresentation (lie?) on a County Manager/Town Manager “pissing match” when there’s so much good will on the part of the County to serve its citizens and so little on the part of the Town.

In one case, a prominent B&B owner has lost the use of four rooms due to fire, and fireman damage and has waited months to get a response from the Town’s Planning Department (PD) to proceed with the remodel project. The owner and the Town have lost thousands of dollars in potential revenue, due to the Town’s dysfunctional PD this tourist season.

P&Z Chair Dennis Garcia at the Wednesday Sept. 2 meeting, cut off Gene Sanchez during public remarks when the former town councilor questioned the PD director about the lack of staff at the PD, which causes delays for local builders.

Fritz, this is said, in all honesty and good will: You’ve got to quit letting Bellis pull the wool over your eyes and do your homework. It took me about five minutes yesterday to call Edward at the County and visit with one of the businesses to find out the “truth” about the building inspector/plan checking imbroglio.

Local government is supposed to “facilitate” the process of economic development, not throw roadblocks in the way. According to my superficial investigations, it appears that the “Public Works Department, ” “Police Department,” and “Planning Department” are barely functioning. Due to poor leadership all three departments have lost employees. The Town let the former HR director go, I’m told, because HR omitted a background check of the former marketing person, who had personal and professional problems.

Several former Public Works department employees are working in Angel Fire. Cops and staff have left Taos Police Department due to the Chief’s arbitrary and capricious policies. The current HR director is inexperienced and probably incapable of resolving internecine office conflicts. The Planning Department and Marketing Department delays speak for themselves.

Bellis has refused or delayed hiring capable local personnel so they go work elsewhere. When your constituents ask you or other elected officials, including the Mayor, about snafus, all of you “kick the can” down the road: but this road is a dead end. Bellis’s latest letter to Ranee Malanga, see below, is another in a series of attempts to “distract” and “avoid” the issues.

Spending money ineffectively whether on P.R. or effectively on watering flowers is not a substitute for weed cutting and filling potholes. While Town employees water flowers they neither sweep nor wash off the grime of the central park on the Plaza left over from the Farmer’s Market. Claims about upgrading the historic district sound like promises from the pulpit about a better life “someday.” Meanwhile the Town erects signs that detract from the historic downtown. What sign code? What Arts and Culture District?

Does Bellis really believe the downtown merchants and landlords are going to get together and tax themselves, see below, when the Town is screwing one of the biggest landlords and merchants in the Historic District at their remodel project? due to its inept Planning Department? Puhleeze!

I have known most of the Plaza landlords for more than 40 years, and, off the record, they have “zero” confidence in the Town or the Bellis/Barrone administration. Merchants and politicians come and go: the landlords, historically, remain.

Currently, the Town has benefitted from tourism due to a change in the macro economic sector of the mainstream economy, not because of efforts by the Town, which took more than a year to hire a marketing firm or because the Town threw good money after bad: the Kongos, Lilac Festival, Solar Festival, Cesar Chavez Day, etc.

When the Fall Arts program succeeds it is because of the efforts by volunteers and nonprofit organizations, not because of Bellis and Barrone policies. Sure a little dough from Lodger’s Tax helps with marketing. But As Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Here’s the Bellis letter: a cunning aim at scapegoating and distracting “Millicent Malanga” with nonsense. I don’t agree with all Ranee’s complaints but she keeps an eye “on the downtown” and the Town Employees, while the Mayor, Manager and Town Council engage in a campaign of smoke and mirrors. Instead of worrying about the “pissing match” referred to above or whether Fred, Andrew, and Judi are conspiring to fire Bellis, you ought to urge Barrone and Bellis to focus less on the “photo op” and “movies in the park” or “concerts” and more on the “art of governing.”

Here’s Bellis’s Letter: No documentation, no pictures, just rhetoric and nonsense. 

Ms. Malanga,

This graffiti has already been taken care of. The streets of the downtown are swept by the street crews on four of every five days and the plaza is maintained, swept, watered, and attended to 7 days per week.

We hired 4 seasonal p/t employees this summer to work just in the downtown and doubled the Town investment to $30,0000 in flowers and plantings in the plaza area.

 The Taos Police Department caught within 3 days the 2 out-of-town kids from a Pueblo drug detox program that we suspect stole the flower baskets, broke the informational sign, broke into cars and stole a light. The “crime wave” stopped immediately.

In the past four months there have been zero acts of vandalism or crime on the plaza (other than the theft of the light that resulted in a broken informational sign) and zero reportable crimes unsolved in the entire downtown historic district, with any reported acts solved within 3 days or less, according to the latest crime statistics report.

In fact, we detected some crimes and returned the property before they were even reported, including a stolen County vehicle and tools.

All graffiti is responded to within 24-48 hours of detection or reporting.

We reallocated $83,000 to fix over 120 pot holes in less than 90 days this spring, after an unprecedented damaging winter and have allocated a similar amount to fix problems this fall..

That is a pretty impressive record for any community, no less one of our size and limited resources.

It should be noted that the Town workforce has undergone a 40% reduction prior to this administration taking office and that, combined with changes in the interpretation of the State “anti-donation” law, means that not all of the personal services that some business owners have become accustomed to can be logistically or legally provided any more.

For example, while the Town allows the merchants to use a portion of the Dunn Shoppes parking lot it leases for positioning of a garbage disposal area, the Town does not own, fund, oversee or maintain that area under any agreement and it is the sole responsibility of the merchants themselves, who contract with Waste Management, Inc. to maintain that area.

At your request and the direction of Councilwoman Cantu, I directed staff to make necessary one-time repairs to the gates of that unit, but we can no longer be responsible for picking up trash dumped by merchants, or others when it is left unsecured, or damage to and the condition of that area.

Additionally, the Town does not own the sidewalks or the overhangs between the stores and the parking spaces on the plaza, nor along the State highways, and it is the responsibility of the merchants and property owners to remove snow, weeds, sweep and keep clean those areas, not the Town.

We are beginning the process of organizing a downtown business association to both allocate funding for such concerns as those that you have expressed about the downtown as well as to prioritize those concerns themselves and to allow businesses within the district to “self-tax”, if they choose to do so, in order to address these concerns.

It is my belief that every single member of the Town Council and staff recognizes the need to maintain and improve the downtown as a high priority to increase tourism and commerce and, along with the Mayor, have directed that all resources available, appropriate and proportionate to the complaints be allocated to respond accordingly.

More than $1,000,000 will be spent in the next 60 days alone just on handling paving and drainage problems in the plaza area. The Town will also shortly be issuing an RFP for security camera services for the plaza and parking areas which we expect to cost in excess of $250,000 for an area with virtually no crime and will be installing additional parking lot lighting. This is an unprecedented reallocation of municipal resources.

Over $125,000 was spent in the past 6 months on events solely for the benefit of bringing tourism to the downtown.

We have additionally hired an international marketing firm that represents such interests as Mount Rushmore, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, the U.S. Army, Los Alamos Economic Development, and over 100 other prominent accounts and we have allocated a half million dollars to advertising and promoting the downtown.

The State, Town, County and federal government are investing $24,000,000 in an expanded, safer and more reliable airport.

Our goal is to make the downtown a more inviting place to single people, couples, families, residents and visitors alike.

However, State law places reasonable limits on our ability to underwrite individual businesses, personal and political interests.

Basically, the law says that all property owners need to maintain their own property, that the Town can’t do it, and that we cannot engage in any activity with public funds that promotes or serves to benefit an individual, a business or a political agenda. There are 6,000 constituents and a Mayor and 5 council members each with their own concerns and priorities each vying for the attention and resources of limited staff.

I believe that is more than fair to say, and that you would agree, that you already disproportionately receive a greater proportion of the Town’s and staff’s time and resources than any other constituent and that Public Works, Facilities, Police and Administration respond to every concern you send us as quickly as we can. However, at some point, that is going to be viewed as not fair to our 5,999 other taxpayers, constituents and full-time residents or to the many other urgent concerns and priorities of our Mayor and Council members.

Vandals, cynics and weeds work 24/7. We try to keep up as best as we can, given our limited resources in a town of 6,000 taxpayers that serves 33,000 people on a daily basis. Certainly, if one is dedicated to find something in the Town that needs painting, is overgrown or is otherwise less than desirable, I am sure that you will be able to find them faster than we can address them. Our records indicate that, with the exception of one year in the past decade, there were no funds allocated to road and infrastructure maintenance, meaning that we now have accumulated 10’s of millions of dollars in disrepair that needs to be addressed. While that is not your personal concern, it is a lot to address in our first 18 months with no new resources.

Nearly all of these problems needing attention are already well documented by the Town and our individual departments. There is simply not enough money to address everything at once. 

I will acknowledge that we are not as pretty as California at times, and that is probably some of the source of your concern when you return to Taos from there, as we are in contrast a community with over 53% percent of our population in poverty and living in mobile and modular homes. We have barely a fraction of the resources available to places like California, Santa Fe or high end resort communities. Additionally, our State Constitution requires that we maintain a balanced budget, cannot deficit spend and have caps imposed on our ability to tax.

We humbly ask that you to take all of these factors into consideration when judging us harshly for things such as weeds or a light that is out or stating that we lack pride in our community. I think that there is a lot of pride and it is growing. There is a rich history that we are learning again to celebrate, and there is a vibrant and growing economy once again.

As an example, despite all of our handicaps and shortcomings that you frequently point out, both Taos and NM have reached all-time record numbers in tourism and GRT’s during each of the last four months, with retail sales up between 11 and 12 percent over prior years. Recently, the Governor announced $11,500,000 to upgrade Paseo del Pueblo as our main corridor for locals and visitors, stating that tourism makes up 40% of the state and local economy and that she sees the majority of the future growth coming from the Taos area. Clearly, the Governor sees promise in what we are achieving and our future potential.

Obviously, we can always do much better and will with your help and that of other business owners and volunteers.

We hear your concerns and are working on them, but this will take time. We all want a better community for everyone. Let’s see if instead of searching for every fault, we can all work together to find some solutions.

I hope that this communication is taken in the spirit that it is meant, in that I am trying to address the frustration you are feeling in believing that you are being ignored by explaining the frustration on our side in addressing unlimited priorities with very limited resources and, I believe, explaining that we all share the same observations and are working toward the same goals as you.

Yours truly,
Rick Bellis

Rick Bellis
Town Manager
Town of Taos
Phone: (575) 751-2002
Cell/Text: (575) 770-2606
Email: rbellis@taosgov.com

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