Mayoral candidates slugged it out during a political forum Monday, with Mayor Henry Sanchez defending his administration’s record and saying it’s easy to point fingers.
Near the beginning of the forum at Memorial Middle School, Sanchez was asked why people weren’t informed about unusually high heating bills last winter until after it ended. Last March, the city informed residents that they had been paying off a deficit in the natural gas utility.
Sanchez told the audience that the city along with State Auditor Hector Balderas planned to hold a forum soon to release and discuss the results of an investigation prompted by customers’ complaints.
“Next week, we plan to have a forum. They are going to tell you exactly what happened,” Sanchez said. He said Balderas asked him not to reveal what he knows about the findings and that until the report is released, it is all hearsay.
“I, for one, agree with you; we were hurting last year,” Sanchez told one of the moderators during the forum, sponsored by the Committee of the People, KFUN radio station and the Optic. “We had a bad ordinance. Did we hurt the citizens? Absolutely. Did we do it on purpose? No way.”
He also pointed to programs designed to help those in need, like the Love Your Neighbor fund. But he never said why the city waited until after the winter to tell residents that they were paying off a deficit.
Gary Ludi, a candidate and emergency management coordinator at the state hospital, said that over the years, the city has become dependent on the profits created by natural gas.
“These profits have not been shared by the shareholders, the citizens of Las Vegas. Instead they have been put into the coffers of the general fund,” Ludi said.
He was referring to the 11 percent of the natural gas revenues that have been placed into the fund that funds everything from police to parks; that number declined to 10 percent in the last year.
Ludi said without these funds, the majority of facilities and services available to Las Vegans would be dramatically reduced or done away with. He said expenditures must be reduced, especially for departments dependent on revenues generated by the gas operation. The city departments should be run like businesses, he said.
Las Vegas City Schools board Vice President Ramon “Swoops” Montao, another mayoral candidate, said the city has senior citizens who can’t afford to pay to heat their homes, to feed themselves or to pay for medications.
Montao said there has to be a good plan in place to help solve the problem and the Sanchez administration had failed to follow it.
“What bothers me is they found a cash-cow. They’re taking money from the enterprise fund to offset deficits in the other city departments that are failing and that’s totally wrong.”
Former state employee Tonita Gurul-Giron said after the ordinance was passed in 1998 for the diversion of revenues from the natural gas fund to the general fund, it was the responsibility of the incoming administration to review.
“Every six months, they were supposed to review and revamp the ordinance as necessary. The fees at that point in time was approximately 6 percent, and it went up to 11 percent. As we all know, the papers have stated that they have reduced the fee 1 percent. That’s only about $35 savings per month — that’s just not enough,” Gurul-Giron said.
Gurul-Giron said it would be difficult to wean the city budget off profits from the sale of natural gas.
City Councilman and candidate Tony Marquez said that even during the last election cycle, everyone knew that the price of natural gas was a hot topic. He said he tried to get the council to put a number of items on the agenda and recommended a utility task force committee that would look into fair and equitable gas prices for the consumer but was rebuffed by the majority.
“I also sponsored an item on the agenda to reduce the City Council salary from $20,000 to $10,000,” Marquez said.
But he said that because he was in the minority, some may have voted against such items because the name “Tony Marquez” was associated with them.
In rebuttal, Montao told Marquez, “I’m glad you came out and opposed those high salaries for councilmen, but how much of that did you give back to the community? I’m a school board member and make $75 a meeting and when you believe and publicly say this, regardless if your fellow councilmen don’t support you, your actions speak louder than words.”
Sanchez said the figures being thrown out were wrong. “Most of the figures I’ve heard tonight are totally wrong. Please come out next week to the forum and have Hector Balderas and his staff explain everything, and we’ll try to make everyone understand what’s happening.”
Ludi said, “Mr. Mayor, if these figures are wrong, then it’s your financial director who is wrong because she put them out at the last City Council meeting.”
Marquez, as a council member, who oversees the financing and personnel of the city, said even he had not received the information.
On other topics:
Our current mayor has not missed a meeting since December 2004 and has essentially been a full-time mayor. This is a part-time position, but how would you serve as mayor effectively while also working at another job in another county? Marquez is a top official in the state Corrections Department in Santa Fe, while Montao is a Mora County sheriff’s deputy.
Marquez: I’d like to show how poor the economic development is in the city of Las Vegas. There are people who travel to Santa Rosa, Springer, Santa Fe and Los Alamos to have a job and meet their obligations at home. My family supports me, my employer supports me, and I plan to serve at least one hour a day as the mayor of Las Vegas. As we all know, traditionally the mayor’s job is not full time; it’s a part-time job just like the City Council, and I plan to spend one day a week at City Hall to address any concerns and questions from the citizens. I am also listed in the phone book.
Montao: Being the mayor of Las Vegas, especially in the situation we are in now, it’s going to take a lot of time. I work evenings, so I have all day to be at City Hall if need be, but it’s really up to the city manager to make sure that he empowers administrators to do their jobs and be accountable. As mayor, I have to spend time there because we need to do desktop audits to see what deficiencies we have in each department. We also need to check expenditures over revenues, so I am going to commit myself to the job at any cost.
Sanchez: You can say you don’t need a full-time mayor, but there are people who had never been in the mayor’s office until I got there. The city manager runs the city, and he would never have time to address the concerns of the citizens. Today, for example, I spent the whole day on personal concerns of people; many have never seen the mayor in their lifetime — my door is always open.
Gurul-Giron: I’m self-employed and work on a part-time basis, so I can honestly state that I would not have a problem being there six to eight hours a day. It is the responsibility of the city manager to run the operation and the mayor is not there to micromanage department directors.
Ludi: I too work full time and believe the mayoral position is a part-time job. A lot of times if you’re there too many hours, you start to micromanage. I believe in strong leadership and once I develop that leadership within division directors and staff, the mayor won’t have to be there all the time.
On March 4, voters will have a decision to make regarding mayoral and City Council pay. They will cast a vote for $85 per meeting, $10,000 a year or $19,854 a year, how will you vote?
Gurule-Giron: For the record, I am offering my services to the city of Las Vegas at no cost. It’s time we all realize the financial impact on the budget; you’re looking at approximately $200,000 a year. That’s a lot of money going out, and I think it’s absolutely outrageous. I’m not in it for the power, and I’m definitely not in it for the money.
Sanchez: I think $10,000 is fair. If it comes to be, these people (City Council) earn their $10,000. I want to emphasize what we have already done to cut salaries; one of our secretaries applied for another job, so now the city manager and I share a secretary at a savings of $32,000. We cut travel and are saving $15,000; we used to pay a lobbyist up to $30,000 and now save money there.
Marquez: I’m voting for the $85 per meeting.
Ludi: I commend you, Tonita, for offering your services for free. Regardless of what pay is received by the next mayor, if elected that money will be divided into two equal parts — one will go to a scholarship at West Las Vegas and one to Robertson High School. I will not receive any pay; they will go to scholarships.
Montao: I was the first candidate two years ago to mention how high the salaries were and the first one to go on the record and say how ridiculous it is to get that kind of money for two meetings a month. I’m sure the taxpayers are smart enough to reduce council pay to the minimum. Right now we have no capital reserves, and we’re always with out hands out begging for money in Santa Fe, so I’m going to ask that we be careful what we do with that money.
All candidates said that water was a top priority and that code enforcement officers need ordinances with more teeth to deal with buildings like the Center Block, which came tumbling down over a year ago and where piles of bricks and lumber litter the site.
Ludi said he loved the mayor like a brother but that sometimes brothers fight. He said more leadership was needed at City Hall.
Marquez called for greater unity in Las Vegas, which he said could yield greater rewards from the state and federal governments. He said local rivalries don’t help: East vs. West, city vs. county, Highlands University vs. Luna Community College, KFUN vs. KNMX and Las Vegas Optic vs. Tri County News-Times.
Gurul-Giron showed that she had gone to meet with the city officials, so she could be better informed in the campaign. She stressed the importance of improving efforts to get grants.
Sanchez said it’s easy to point fingers, adding that the city had a good staff that was taking care of problems. He said many of his critics have agendas, often involving money. He even suggested constant criticism may be un-Christian. “Figures don’t lie; liars figure,” he said. He said it’s important to be positive, noting that the News-Times has twice recently given two pages for free to publish the city’s accomplishments.
Montao said he doesn’t follow the directives of any political elite in town and that he makes his decisions based on th merits. He repeatedly questioned the mayor’s leadership.