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Sanchez defends city on gas issues

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By David Giuliani

Mayor Henry Sanchez on Monday called a form letter asking the city to give customers reimbursements for alleged overcharges for natural gas a “halloween trick.”

He also lashed out at former Mayor Matt Martinez, blaming his political rival, in part, for high heating bills.

A couple of weeks ago, KMDZ DJ Charli Otero started circulating a form letter to customers requesting the city recalculate their bills from January 2006 to the present and immediately refund or credit any overpayments found.

The letter is more symbolic at this point because the city has not conceded it has overcharged any customers. Both the district attorney and the state auditor have launched inquiries to determine whether the city followed its own ordinance that dictates how gas rates are to be set.

The Optic has published the form letter twice — a decision the mayor has called into question. The city is now enclosing a letter in utility bills signed by City Manager John Avila calling the form letter “irresponsible” and an attempt to “inflame” the public.

Sanchez said the city has probably taken in more than 100 form letters from utility customers.

“That was one of the worst Halloween tricks,” he said. “Eighty-year-old grandmothers are coming in, and they’re expecting money back. It’s really affected the elderly. We don’t have a million bucks in the bank for people to line up and get money.

Sanchez noted that Otero works for KMDZ, the sister station of KNMX, both operated by Martinez, one of the mayor’s opponents in the 2006 election. The mayor said the city administration is getting “eaten alive” and that it’s time to start telling people how the natural gas bills became so high.

City officials have said the controversial administrative fee — which has funneled 11 percent of natural gas revenue to the city’s general fund — started in the 1980s at only a few percentage points. But Sanchez pointed out that it rose to around 11 percent under Martinez’s administration. That started the practice in which the general fund, which pays for everything from police to parks, heavily relies on utility revenue, the mayor said.

“I want the truth to be out there,” he said.

Martinez called the handling of the natural gas issue the “biggest flop” of the Sanchez administration. He said Otero is acting independently on her show.

“What are they afraid of? They have all the information in front of them. They need to fix that mess,” he said. “This is seven years later, and they’re trying to point the finger at me. That’s laughable.”

Martinez said the fee was raised in his administration fee because the city was spending money from its general fund on two water lawsuits. But he said the fee was never set in stone. Rather, it should be reviewed every six months, he said.

From January 2006 to August 2007, the city charged a controversial cost-of-gas adjustment at a rate much higher than allowed under a city ordinance. The city’s utilities department performed the required calculations, but someone replaced the results with another number for the adjustment. The city hasn’t been able to produce any documents showing how it got to that number.

City officials have said that they didn’t follow the ordinance because of a shortfall in the natural gas utility. That deficit was wiped away in late June, yet the cost-of-gas adjustment remained the same in July and August. The city zeroed out the adjustment in September.

Avila said the city, in effect, is reimbursing customers this month and last because they were charged the cost-of-gas adjustment in July and August and now there is no adjustment at all. He said the reason the city waited on the cost-of-gas adjustment was to make sure it had eliminated the deficit.

On Wednesday, the City Council will vote on a new ordinance to set natural gas rates, which includes a calculation that officials say is much easier.

Otero couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, but she has said before that the city has been “beating around the bush” and should admit that it hasn’t followed its own ordinance.