Mayor Henry Sanchez on Friday apologized for what happened with Las Vegas’ natural gas rates over the last few years, but he added “what we did was right.”
Sanchez fended off criticism from his four rivals in the March 4 municipal election during a 2-1/2-hour mayoral forum on KNMX radio, the majority of which was devoted to the natural gas issue.
The debate was held a day after a public forum in which an independent auditor reported that the city violated its ordinance for setting natural gas rates from 2001 to 2007. As a result, the audit states that gas utility customers were overcharged $10 million during that time.
The Optic last year had already reported that the city had violated its ordinance, but at the time, the city called the newspaper’s story incorrect and irresponsible.
“I was so encouraged to sit at the (natural gas) forum. There was nothing done wrong. There was no crime. There was nothing illegal,” Sanchez said. “No one has frozen or died in our city because of this.”
He also referred to the part of the audit that showed that if the city had followed the ordinance, it would have put the natural gas utility into a $10 million deficit.
The auditor, Jeffery McWhorter, said last week that instead of the city’s following the ordinance, a city-hired consultant called the shots on natural gas rates. He said the consultant made “economically prudent” decisions, keeping the deficit lower than it would have been.
McWhorter said the city should have revised the ordinance, rather than have the consultant make the decisions.
Sanchez’s opponents took exception to his views on the audit.
“There is nothing that can be said to attempt to argue with clear facts,” said former state employee Tonita Gurul-Giron. “The facts are the city and the City Council had the opportunity to revise and revisit the ordinance, and they failed to do so. Plain and simple.”
She said the city needs to find a way to to reimburse citizens on a monthly basis until they get paid back the money they were overcharged.
Gary Ludi, an official at the state hospital, criticized the city for transferring so much natural gas revenue — now 10 percent — to the general fund, which pays for everything from police to parks. He said it wasn’t fair that natural gas customers had to have more of a burden paying for city services than others.
“We have to make the gas fund self-sustaining,” he said. “It’s time we start reimbursing people.”
Ramon “Swoops” Montao, a Las Vegas City Schools board member, agreed that the city had treated the natural gas fund as a “cash cow” for other departments.
“It was mismanaged and misappropriated. We can no longer have taxpayers pay for departments that aren’t self-sustaining. The fat was passed down to certain taxpayers, and that was totally wrong,” Montao said.
Tony Marquez, a city councilman, said the city hasn’t been open about natural gas rates, contending that he had asked the city numerous times for the rate distribution factor but never received it.
“Last night, we were all in attendance at the forum. The state auditor was the only one doing the presentation. No one was available to answer questions from the city at the same time,” Marquez said. “The state auditor stated that the city violated its own ordinance. To me, something is wrong there.”
Sanchez batted down suggestions about reimbursements.
“Let’s not lie to the people. There’s no way we’re going to get the money back to the people. We call it a cash cow. There’s a lot of misinformation coming out of this forum,” he said.
He promised that the city would run the system much better in the future.
“We have made a more efficient system and kept the costs down,” he said.
On another issue, all of Sanchez’s rivals opposed last week’s decision to give two months of severance pay for outgoing City Manager John Avila.
Sanchez broke a tie in a council vote to give Avila, who said he resigned, $12,000 after he leaves.
Montao said if one employee gets severance pay, everyone should.
“There are some employees who have been with the city and had to leave to take care of loved ones, but they didn’t get severance pay. If we do it for the city manager, we should do it for the lowest on the totem pole,” he said.
Gurul-Giron said that because of her human resources experience, she would have opposed the severance pay. She noted that the city never signed a contract with Avila.
Ludi said he, too, wouldn’t have supported the pay. He said he was surprised by the statement by Councilman Michael Gallegos, who said he couldn’t support severance pay but hoped it passed. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Ludi said.
Marquez said he voted against it because Avila was resigning, not being fired.
Sanchez said he stood by his tie-breaking vote.
“You answer to your conscience. When I had to break that tie, I slept like a baby that night,” he said.