County commission upholds business ordinance

Hannah Grover
From left, Bill and Darci Moss, who own Bill Moss Excavation, stand on Friday on their property north of Aztec. The couple opposes an ordinance the San Juan County Commission approved in January that requires businesses to register with the county.

AZTEC — The chairman of the San Juan County Commission on Tuesday asked residents to give a new business ordinance a chance.

Scott Eckstein said he decided to address Ordinance 95 again after residents expressed concerns about it at the Feb. 2 commission meeting and asked commissioners to consider repealing it.

On Tuesday, Eckstein asked the other commissioners if they had changed their opinions since the commission approved the ordinance in January. None of the commissioners said they had changed their minds on the ordinance.

"I feel it would be a waste of time to put it up for a vote again if it's going to be the same," Eckstein said.

The commission voted 3-2 in favor of the ordinance in January. Jack Fortner — who, along with Margaret McDaniel, opposed the ordinance — agreed a re-vote would be futile.

"I don't think I'm able to convince anyone, so perhaps it's time to put it to rest," he said at the meeting.

Ordinance 95 requires businesses in the county that must obtain a state license to also register with the county. The ordinance is intended to assess the locations of hazardous materials at businesses in the county so emergency response crews can act accordingly.

So far, nearly 30 businesses in the county have registered under the ordinance. Businesses have until March 1 to register with the county.

"I urge every one of you who are opposed to this ordinance to watch it very carefully for a year," Eckstein told the dozens of residents who attended the meeting.

He said if the ordinance violates residents' property rights, like some fear, the commission can repeal it.

The owners of Bill Moss Excavation, pictured on Friday north of Aztec, say they oppose Ordinance 95, which requires certain businesses in San Juan County to register with the county.

Despite offering several public meetings, County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the people who have spoken to him about the ordinance tend to have incorrect information.

"We've had very few people, very few people who actually have all the correct information," he said.

Some of the confusion stems from changes that have been made to the ordinance. The ordinance initially included a registration fee and a large penalty fine. Since then, staff have removed the registration fee, added a 30-day grace period and reduced possible fines.

Although dozens of residents attended the meeting hoping to speak against the ordinance, Eckstein did not allow public input. He said the commission has already spent many hours listening to public comments, going beyond its legal requirements for public input. That included both public hearings and comment periods at commission meetings.

The residents who attended the Tuesday meeting angrily protested Eckstein's refusal to hear public comments as they stood up and noisily left the commission room. Some of them muttered that there needs to be a re-election while others tried to fight their way to the microphone and speak despite the commission's attempt to move on in the agenda.

"That's a slap in the face," said Jake Hottell, a county resident who opposes the ordinance, after the meeting.

"That's why we all came," added Gail Nelson, another resident who also opposes the ordinance.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, two women addressed the commission regarding Ordinance 95, despite Eckstein telling the audience that the comment period was for subjects not previously addressed in the meeting.

Sharon Hottell was one of these two women. She stood up and read section 17 of the ordinance, which addresses enforcement of the ordinance. Hottell said she is concerned the county could prevent business owners from occupying buildings.

Doug Echols, the county attorney, said section 17 allows the county to go to district court to enforce the ordinance, but it does not allow the county to seize private property.

After the meeting, Billie Murphy said she plans on watching the ordinance closely.

"Hopefully, it will not last a year," she said.

The commission on Tuesday also approved publishing notices of intent to adopt ordinances that would repeal a one-sixteenth of 1 percent health care gross receipts tax and repeal the sunset on a one-eighth of 1 percent gross receipts tax. The one-sixteenth tax is scheduled to sunset at the end of the year, meaning it will no longer be in effect after Dec. 31.

The commission moved to approve the notices because of concerns about future state legislation. Carpenter cited a last-minute ruling in 2012 that did away with hold harmless payments to the several local governments. He said that legislative decision cost the county and city of Farmington millions of dollars.

"Our hand is being forced by the state legislature because we don't know what they are going to do," Fortner said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.