The Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon on Thursday, which featured Silver City municipal candidates and the safety tax issue.
The first to speak was Municipal Judge Sonya Ruiz. She is running for re-election to the position.
"I was born and raised in Silver City and chose to raise my family here," Ruiz said. "I began at the Municipal Court as a court receptionist. In 2001, I was appointed to deputy judge. I have been 13 years with the court."
Judges are responsible for the actions of the court, she said. "I am one of the few municipal judges in the state who can take a case from the beginning to the end. I can assure you it's correct work. I work diligently to keep the separation of powers in the city. I understand the court is a separate entity. Everyone who comes into the court is dealt with fairly."
"I'm a firm judge," Ruiz said. "I'm not an easy judge, but I have different ways to have those sentenced take responsibility for their actions.
"When we swear our oath, we are to uphold the integrity of the court," she continued. "I am a proponent of technology and we can do arraignments by camera from the jail. It saves the city a lot of money in transportation."
She said performing marriages is one of the nicer parts of her job. "I am completely bi-lingual. I am a public servant."
To a question from Trent Petty, Silver School Board president, about what she does for alternative sentencing, Ruiz said judges are to have a fiscal plan and use taxpayers' dollars wisely. Judges do not have to consider jailing prisoners. "I use the ankle bracelet monitoring, which works with GPS and landline phones. Those who wear them must pay for the service, and are allowed only to be at home or at their job. The goal is to change their behavior. I also sentence some to do community service."
Margaret Hopper, Silver City resident, asked how often financial restitution is part of sentences.
"I cannot set restitution," Ruiz said, "but I can set a penalty to repair the action as a term of probation."
The other candidate for municipal judge, Benny Montes, was not present.
The next to speak was Rebecca Spann, running for Town Council District 2.
"My husband, Don, and I met here in Silver City 30 years ago," Spann said. "We ended up in Tucson, Arizona, 25 years ago. We came back home. We've been visiting with businesses and going to new restaurants. I have talked to a lot of the owners and they are struggling, especially because of regulations."
She retired from the telephone company, where she worked most of her career. In her personal life, she helped expand a church campus. "I went back to school to become a nurse."
"I am running because I came to the conclusion that there is not enough competition for city positions," Spann said.
Lynda Aiman-Smith, the other candidate for Town Council District 2, reported that all the municipal candidates were on the radio the previous evening answering questions from panel members.
"The reason I'm running is because I want to use my skills to better the community," Aiman-Smith said. "I am a native New Mexican, from Farmington, but I spent much of my career outside the state. I discovered Silver City in 2001 and fell in love with the mountains, and the friendly and diverse population.
"I started my first business at the age of 21, and have had six or seven businesses over my lifetime," she continued. "I have worked corporate. I speak operations, quality control and quality assurance. What is most interesting to me is being engaged in a growing mentorship. I see business opportunities every day. I think we could have lots of small entrepreneurial businesses."
She cited one example. As a volunteer at the Visitor Center, she sees tourists come in and ask if there are tours to take. "I think it would be a good idea for a practicum for college students to lead people on a tour and then leave them at a local restaurant. I'm working on this with the Western (New Mexico University) business school."
Mike Morones is running for mayor in an uncontested race.
"I was born and raised here and am a graduate of Silver High School and Western New Mexico University," Morones said. "One of the first things, William Knuttinen, my business partner, and I did when we opened our business was to become a member of the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce. I hope to be able to work with you as individuals and with the chamber."
He said he has an open door policy in his office, if "I'm not in a meeting."
Morones also serves on the Small Business Development Center Advisory Board and said the board members want to have the town and businesses work together.
To a question about whether the mayor, who is also a member of the council, gets to vote, Morones said: "only as a tie-breaker."
Aiman-Smith asked him what the difference was between the mayor and a council member.
"The mayor is the chief executive officer of the council," Morones said. "The mayor sets the agenda of the meeting. I will try to ensure efficient and transparent meetings."
Petty asked about Morones' vision for the city.
"In the next two years, we are not going to change the world," Morones said. "But we don't have the infrastructure to bring in big business. We have to answer the questions: Do we need four lanes to Deming; a better road to the airport; and to tie into the mines for the railroad? I would like to regionalize the water system and tie into the water rights we have at the airport and tie them into Hurley. We need to plant the seeds, so in a decade or two, we can build up the infrastructure we need to being in businesses.
"I like the downtown," he continued. "I think it's a tremendous asset. Yes, we need the highway sprawl, but people turn off of Interstate 10, of U.S. 180 and NM 90 not to see national chains, but to visit our downtown. That's where the small businesses are and they need more resources. Plant seeds on the big picture ideas, but we want to take care of small businesses."
Bruce Ashburn of PNM asked about the hold harmless issue and the impact it will have on the town.
Morones explained the state took away the tax on food and medical services several years ago. It knew the communities would take a hit, so the state devised hold harmless to provide funding. "For Silver City, it's $1.7 million to $1.8 million. If it's taken away, we have a major issue to address. What the state is looking at is phasing out the hold harmless. We have to decide whether to cut the budget, increase taxes or create enterprise funds. If we do the latter, we have to make sure the funds are fully functioning. The state gave us the ability to impose more tax without going to the voters."
Hopper pointed out that adding on taxes would not help the small businesses. "Large businesses will have a hard time coming to New Mexico instead of to Texas or Arizona where they are more business friendly. I think we need about five steps to help small businesses."
"Small businesses are struggling across the country," Morones said. "Increasing taxes is a double-edged sword and is scary. We in the town have a balancing act. We can cut services, but that can be just as damaging to small businesses. I look to the chamber to be the think tank on the issue."
Scott Terry, SC-GC Chamber of Commerce executive director, said Silver City is in relatively good shape, but the loss of hold harmless will devastate other communities in the state.
The next presentations were on the ballot issue to renew the public safety tax.
Anita Norero, Silver City deputy finance director, said in 2004, voters approved a 1/8 of one percent tax with the sole purpose being for public safety. "It had a sunset clause of 10 years, and it is expiring this year."
"We have received $3.5 million over 9 ½ years," Norero said. "It has paid for four police officers and one firefighter, 17 patrol cars and one ladder truck.
"This is not a new tax," she said. "It is a continuation of the present tax. Now, because of increasing salaries and benefit costs, it will pay for three policemen and one firefighter. It will continue to purchase police vehicles.
"If it is not passed, the town will have to cut other services to maintain the public safety services," Norero continued. "The tax can be used only for public safety."
Fire Chief Rudy Bencomo said in 2004, citizens came to the Town Council and requested more services. "They overwhelmingly voted in favor of the tax. We saw the need to update our fire equipment, which is expensive. We needed a ladder truck for the hospital and the university buildings. Unlike other departments in the state, we cannot replace equipment on a five-year basis. Almost 90 percent of our equipment is 10 years old or older. Our medical units are 12 years old, and sometimes, we have to respond to medical issues with fire engines. We've also seen an increase in wildfire to about 36 to 38 a year. We fight about 20 structure fires every year."
"This tax issue is not an increase," Bencomo said. "It is 12.5 cents on $100 that you would save if it is not passed. We ask our personnel to do their jobs. Our job is to make sure they have good equipment."
Police Chief Ed Reynolds said: "It is really important for the citizens to continue this measure. At $2.7 million, our department is the largest user of the town's budget. A loss of this revenue would impact us in five to six units a year. This tax helps us get loans for vehicles. Sixteen of our patrol cars need to be replaced. Across the country the standard mileage to replace a vehicle is 75,000 miles. These 16 that need replacing have over 100,000 miles each, with one at $150,000. Our animal control vehicle is over 200,000 miles."
The loss of the tax revenue would impact residents; the department would lose personnel and programs because of lack of personnel; and response time would increase.
"Right now, when officers leave their house, they are on duty and can respond immediately without having to go to the department to get a vehicle," Reynolds said. "Last year, we arrested 1,700 people. I keep my officers busy. When we were having a higher number of burglaries, we arrested 54 individuals for more than 200 burglaries.
"This is a safety issue," Reynolds said. "If we are driving outdated equipment it impacts the safety of the officer and the safety of the residents. I would like the residents of Silver City to keep up the standard, so we can keep providing the best possible service."
Lori Ford, Community Access Television of Silver City director, asked about the town working with the county.
"We received $95,000 for anti-money laundering activities for overtime to interdict illegal drugs," Reynolds said. "We're looking at the end of October to have expended the funding, but there is an option to obtain more."
Mike Trujillo of AmBank asked if that was why he had seen Silver City police cars in Hurley.
"Yes," Reynolds said. "The drug corridors are highways 180, 90 and 152. We are cross-commissioned with the Sheriff Department deputies and can also help with traffic and crashes. We do it to create a safe environment. In the past year, we reduced crashes by 10 percent and injuries by 11 percent. We catch the bad guys through traffic stops. Eighty percent of the ones we arrest are caught on traffic stops. "
John Brack of Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold Inc. asked if the activities were reducing services in town and how effective were the programs.
Reynolds said the activities have caught drugs, but not a lot of money, but that it did not impact services in town, because it was for only overtime costs.
Jaime Torres of Sun Valley Do It Hardware asked if it were possible to get together with larger cities to pick up lower-mileage vehicles.
"It's not worth it," Reynolds said. "We inherit their problems. We are also at the point where we need to replace the computers in the vehicles.
Brack asked if the safety tax would again have a sunset clause.
Morones said this vote would reinstate the tax on a permanent basis. "We had to put the sunset clause in the first time to make sure the money was spent correctly and it has been."
Reynolds asked those present to give him a call and ask questions about the issue. "I just posted at silvercitypublicsafety.org last year's statistics."
Terry said the chamber board just that morning had passed two resolutions endorsing the safety tax, as well as House Bill 292, which allows utilities to bring in businesses.