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Audit to be released soon

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By David Giuliani

The state auditor’s office expects to release the results of its audit on the city’s natural gas rates early next month — the result of an investigation inspired by customer complaints.

State Auditor Hector Balderas said last week that he didn’t want to reveal yet what the audit has found but that he plans to meet Friday with the private auditing firm, Accounting and Consulting Group, which has been handling the project.

Shortly after, Balderas said he hopes to release the findings to the city government and the public. He said his office may hold a public forum for residents who have questions about the report, as well as meet with the City Council.

“If there’s enough public concern, we can hold a forum,” he said. “One of my policy obligations is to reach out to the public. That’s part of our mission.”

If all goes as planned, the audit will be released in the weeks before the March 4 municipal election. Mayor Henry Sanchez, who has defended the city’s approach to natural gas rates, is facing four opponents in the election.

Balderas and District Attorney Richard Flores launched an investigation after many city customers complained abut sharply increased heating bills last winter.

At issue is the city’s cost-of-gas adjustment, an addition or subtraction to bills as determined by a required calculation under a city ordinance. The city utilities department calculated the adjustment according to the ordinance’s requirements, but someone crossed out the resulting adjustments and replaced them with another number for a year and a half.

The Optic obtained the calculations through a public records request. However, City Manager John Avila said it was a mistake to release the information, saying it was “work product.” The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a nonprofit watchdog group, has maintained that state law required the documents’ release.

The city was never able to produce a document or an explanation about why the results from the calculations were crossed out and replaced with the same number.

If the calculations had been followed, residents’ heating bills would have been much lower.

City officials have said that the city didn’t zero out the cost-of-gas adjustment because of a deficit in the natural gas utility.

However, the ordinance states that in a deficit situation, “no reductions to customer bills shall be made through the application of the CGA (cost-of-gas adjustment) until the city determines that the deficit has been eliminated.”

In other words, the adjustment couldn’t reduce a customer’s bill during times of deficits, but the adjustment could be zeroed out, essentially having no effect on the bill.

Las Vegas got out of its deficit situation at the end of June, but the city didn’t cut the adjustment until September. This, city officials acknowledge, was a technical violation of the ordinance. However, they said they did that because the ordinance was unworkable.

Last fall, the City Council passed a new ordinance that officials said would make the calculations simpler.