Alibi V.13 No.4 • Jan 22-28, 2004 

Payne's World

When it's Broke, Fix it

New water utility authority ails Albuquerque

If Britney Spears could wriggle free of her pre-dawn Las Vegas nuptials in a matter of hours, why can't Albuquerque annul the incestuous shotgun wedding its water utility was forced into last year with the Bernalillo County Commission? Sure, Britney's 5:30 a.m. trip down the aisle of the Little White Wedding Chapel might have been the result of “a joke that went too far” (now there's one I wish I'd thought of ...) but a joke that went too far is also about the best spin that can be used to describe what the state Legislature and Gov. Richardson did to Albuquerque ratepayers and our water utility last year.

Over time, Albuquerque ratepayers created a $2 billion asset that is the city's water utility. That utility was built, sustained and maintained by the bills our customers are assessed each and every month.

Ninety-five percent of the utility's customers live within the city of Albuquerque but the City Council could vote 9-0 to reduce water rates across the board and, for the first time in the history of Albuquerque municipal government, it wouldn't mean anything!

Because of legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon in the 2003 session, the mayor and Albuquerque City Council carry approximately the same amount of political weight at the water utility that France carries in the United Nations.

This has enormous implications for anyone the least bit concerned about Albuquerque's water supply and future growth of the City. The ability to provide water and utilities to undeveloped land is one of the greatest powers at the disposal of local government. And ultimately, that's what the fight over the water utility is all about.

Arguing the bill would promote better “cooperation” between the city and county, Aragon introduced Senate Bill 887, which seized authority of the utility from the mayor and City Council and placed it in the hands of the new Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority— a body compromised of three county commissioners, three city councilors and the mayor. In this sense, “cooperation” is a word representing nothing more than a thin, candy-coated veneer that conceals some pretty undiluted political BS.

Senate Bill 887 was passed with the intense lobbying efforts of the County Commission. And what it really represented was political retaliation for the City Council's passage of the Planned Growth Strategy Ordinance. Over the past couple of years, the council has attempted to take a more thoughtful approach to growth and development, culminating in the 2002 adoption of the PGS compromise that passed the council on a 7-2 vote and was signed by Mayor Martin Chavez.

Although the original PGS was a bureaucratic bouillabaisse of quotas, utopianism and tax hikes, the revised legislation represented months of hard work from people throughout Albuquerque—including members of the business and development community. At its core, the compromise PGS represents a paradigm shift in the growth pattern of the city, moving the focus of growth from outward bound (where nothing currently exists) toward infill and redevelopment where city infrastructure is already in place.

And there's the rub: If you're someone who has speculated on a couple of hundred acres of land on the far Westside of town, having the city put its focus on in-fill development isn't very appealing because of the time it will take for the city's growth (and water and sewer lines) to reach your property and make it worth anything.

But what may account for the County Commission's determination to undermine the PGS is that these are exactly the kind of areas that make up much of unincorporated Bernalillo County. Until Aragon's legislation, the County Commission didn't have access to a water utility that could extend water lines out near the volcanoes. Now they do.

The bad news, however, is that as despicable a piece of public policy as Senate Bill 887 is, the city's leadership seems resigned to live with it. Mayor Martin Chavez—who has shown a penchant to cast the deciding vote in favor of the county commissioners on the Water Authority—now calls the body “an abomination.” On that point, he's right. But Chavez is also very quick to say that he doesn't believe the Legislature will repeal the legislation.

Council President Michael Cadigan and Vice President Eric Griego were fierce in their support of the Planned Growth Strategy and the restaurant smoking ban but have taken a more appeasing position on the utility takeover, too. Both are politically ambitious Democrats that want the support of Gov. Richardson who, in turn, depends on the support of Manny Aragon to get his legislative agenda through the State Senate. Welcome to Politics 101.

The Legislature will take up many critical issues this year: the state budget, curbing the skyrocketing costs of Medicare and Medicaid, tougher DWI laws, and reconfiguring the tax code to name a few. But arguably, nothing is more critical to the residents of Albuquerque—and members of the state Legislature from Albuquerque—than wresting back control of its own water utility and its ability to plan for growth.

For now, the issue might not make for the kind of press coverage a teen curfew initiative might get, but for the city's long-term quality of life, it might actually be more important.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at greg@alibi.com.