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Officials leave City Council in dark

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By David Giuliani

For months, city staffers worked to change the purpose for more than $1 million designated for a water project.

They kept a local developer in the loop. But no one apparently bothered to inform the City Council.

A couple of years ago, the city obtained $1.2 million from the state Water Trust Board for a study to build pipes for the Storrie Project Water Users Association — to reduce the more than 40 percent loss in evaporation. In return, the association was expected to provide the city with more badly needed storage of water at Storrie Lake.

Last year, however, then-City Manager John Avila started an effort to change the purpose of the money. He said this week that the city figured that the original plan wasn’t doable, so it decided to ask the state to apply the money to effluent and sewer lines along Cinder Road.

The effluent line would have taken treated wastewater to Storrie users to use on their alfalfa fields, Avila said, with the association giving storage rights to the city in return.

The sewer line would have helped deal with growth on Las Vegas’ north side, Avila said. One of the beneficiaries would have been Carlos Gallegos, a former city councilman who has a 32-lot development in that area. He was a behind-the-scenes proponent of the Cinder Road plan.

Documents presented to the council on Wednesday night revealed a somewhat different story from Avila’s. They indicate that the city wanted the money for an effluent line to water athletic fields along Cinder Road, not mentioning anything about Storrie. But the city stated that its request wasn’t necessarily limited to those fields.

Avila resigned as city manager in February, and his boss, Mayor Henry Sanchez, lost his bid for re-election the following month to Tony Marquez.

Not long after, the state Water Trust Board reportedly approved the change of scope for the money — a development not announced publicly. Indeed, the council never voted on the request to the state or discussed it.

Avila has said he had informed the council about the change.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Tom An-drews, a project manager with the state Environment Department, encouraged the city to come up with a preliminary engineering report for the money as soon as possible.

Although city officials fear that they may lose the money because of the confusion, Andrews said that wasn’t the case yet.

“Rest assured, so far, so good,” he said.

When asked when the city’s drop-dead date was, Andrews said, “Yesterday.”

He said the Water Trust Board, which is connected to the Environment Department, doesn’t necessarily look kindly on requests for changes to projects.

“When they see people switching things around, they lose faith and you lose credibility. The board gets the impression that people don’t know what they’re doing,” Andrews said.

Council members suggested that they hold a special meeting next week to discuss the issue and take action.

But Utilities Director George DuFour advised the council to act quicker than that.

The mayor said the council needed more time.

“The City Council gives direction in this matter. We need to make an informed, intelligent decision,” he said.

Councilman Morris Madrid said his head was still spinning with all of the explanations, but he said he would review a packet that was presented to council members during Wednesday’s meeting.

“It would be embarrassing to ask for another redirection of the funding. We would be laughed out of the building,” he said.

Madrid also presented a letter from the Las Vegas-San Miguel Economic Development Corporation to the city supporting sewer lines on Cinder Road. The May letter was from then-EDC Director Sharon Caballero, who is now city manager.

However, the letter didn’t indicate where the funding should come from.

Councilman Andrew Feldman said the change in scope for the funding appeared to be a “political move.”

“The money should stay with the Storrie Project,” he said.

The council members generally agreed to hold a special meeting next week on the issue.

In the audience was Gallegos, the developer. He didn’t say anything during the meeting. But he said earlier in the week that the community as a whole benefits economically with the growth on the north side and that it was critical the city improve its sewer lines there.

The city has yet to set a specific time for next week’s meeting, saying it would depend on the availability of state officials.