Councilor says Bloomfield has spent $849k on lawsuit against Farmington
City trying to establish right to purchase infrastructure
BLOOMFIELD — The city of Bloomfield has spent $849,000 in its attempts to establish its right to acquire electric utility infrastructure from the city of Farmington, according to City Councilor Ken Hare.
Bloomfield sued Farmington in 2015. Bloomfield claims Farmington is required by a 1960s court decision to sell its electric utility assets located within Bloomfield city limits to Bloomfield. Farmington maintains that the 1960s decision only applies to assets that existed at the time Farmington acquired the infrastructure from the former owner, the Basin Light & Power Co., in 1959.
Hare provided the figure in response to questions from the public about the lawsuit during a Monday City Council meeting.
During the recent campaign for seats on the City Council and mayor's office, Hare and other candidates, including the newly elected Mayor Cynthia Atencio and Councilor Sue Finch, expressed opposition to spending money on lawsuits while the city cut services and laid off employees. In contrast, the incumbents supported the acquisition and the lawsuit. The two incumbent councilors Elwin Roark and DeLaws Lindsay, as well as incumbent Mayor Scott Eckstein, were voted out of office overwhelmingly. Following the March election, Hare said he believed the electric utility lawsuit was one of the critical factors for voters.
On Monday, City Attorney Ryan Lane said Farmington has asked the New Mexico Court of Appeals to review the district judge’s ruling that Bloomfield has the right to acquire the infrastructure. The Court of Appeals has not announced whether it will review the case.
“At this point, we’re just in a holding pattern waiting to see if the Court of Appeals will accept the case or not,” Lane said.
Hare described the legal dispute the city currently is in as the first phase in the process of Bloomfield's plan to establish its own power utility. He said phase two will involve answering questions such as how much it will cost to purchase the infrasturcture.
He said the city will not move into phase two without having city meetings to gather input from the public.
Hare added that the city cannot acquire the infrastructure without having residents vote on it. He said the residents will be given all the numbers the city has compiled before any such election.
“I’m not very happy with this trying to purchase the electricity,” Bloomfield resident Edith Gray said during Monday's meeting.
Hare acknowledged that many residents do not support the plan.
“On the other side, there’s a lot of people in Bloomfield that still feel that it is the right thing to do, and we need to be very inclusive in this and involve those in our town hall meetings, as well, and try to get the figures and facts out there so we can make a decision that the citizens are comfortable with,” Hare said.
Councilor Matt Pennington said the City Council consists of members with business experience.
“Going forward, it’s a business,” he said. “If we can make money at it, we’ll do it. If we can’t, we’re out. Period. I mean, it’s that simple.”
Pennington said the city chose to pursue the lawsuit to reserve its right to someday purchase the infrastructure from Farmington.
“If we hadn’t done that now, there’s a good chance we would have lost it,” he said.
In other news, the City Council also heard the city's audit report for fiscal year 2017.
Jaime Rumbaoa, a principal for Axiom, an Albuquerque-based accounting firm, presented the audit findings. Axiom performed the audit for the city. The 109-page document can be viewed on the state auditor's website, saonm.org. He said there were several findings relating to lack of internal controls that dated back to 2010. He said that likely was due to the city not having a large enough staff.
He said there was one new finding in fiscal year 2017 that violates state statute regarding unclaimed property. The information about the finding can be found on page 107 of the audit report.
Rumbaoa said when the city's water and wastewater utilities are unable to return security deposits to customers for closed accounts, the money is supposed to be sent to the state, where it goes into the general fund. In many cases, the city mailed a check to the customer, but the checks were returned because the address was wrong.
Instead, he said, Bloomfield has been holding the money in a separate account.
Finance director Brad Ellsworth said some of the deposits date to the early 1990s. He said the city is working to return the deposits or send them to the state. Ellsworth said the law requires the city to make an attempt to find the people who are owed the deposits.
“We’ll try to find as many as we can before sending it to the state,” he said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.