Looking forward to a new year
From The Daily Times newsroom:
We wish our readers a happy New Year and hope that 2016 brings more good news than bad.
We take the responsibility of informing you very seriously, and we are proud of our efforts in 2015.
Our investigative reporting uncovered the first signs that Secretary of State Dianna Duran was not performing the duties entrusted to her by New Mexico voters. We found that, although she had levied fines for violations of the campaign finance reporting law, she had not referred a single open case from the past two election cycles to authorities for investigation and possible prosecution. The New Mexico Attorney General later accused Duran of violating the reporting law. Her actions — including spending campaign contributions in area casinos — landed her a jail sentence that she is currently serving.
We also reported extensively on a study that found human waste was polluting the San Juan and Animas rivers. We believe our rivers should be sources of community pride and a key element in promoting the area as a recreation destination for people interested in the broad variety of activities possible here. We took the New Mexico Environment Department to task for not using the full force of its enforcement powers to police and remedy this problem.
The other likely source of pollution involves leaky and improperly installed septic systems. In a recent interview with New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn, he told us that San Juan County is now the only county in the state where all the known septic pumpers are in compliance with state regulations, which includes a registration process that requires classes on waste handling. We will continue to write about efforts to find the needed funding to connect outlying communities to city sewage treatment systems.
Our efforts were recognized at this year's New Mexico Press Association awards ceremony where — in competition with the largest papers in the state — we took first place for Best News Coverage, Sports Coverage, Breaking News-Digital, Education Writing and Series or Continuing Coverage.
In 2016, we will continue to work hard to provide the Four Corners area with news — both in print and online — that informs our readers about the important issues — both positive and negative — in their communities.
What follows is a compilation from our reporters of some of the issues we will be following in the new year.
In 2015, the local economy experienced a significant drop in oil and gas industry tax revenue, which has been the foundation for county and city budgets.
San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter said county officials will meet this month to try to find a way to spread the already stripped down operational budget even thinner. In 2015, the county collected about half of the oil and gas and mining revenues that it did the previous year, a trend that challenges local officials to replace some of that revenue by boosting businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors.
With the price of natural gas languishing at a 13-year low — slightly above $2 per million British thermal units — and a barrel of crude oil remaining below $40 a barrel — it topped $140 in fall 2014 — revenue from that sector is not expected to bounce back in the near future. The picture is further complicated by the tightening of regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions and methane emissions from oil and gas production.
Hundreds of San Juan County workers in the oil and gas industry were laid off throughout 2015 as the impact of low commodity prices took its toll.
Those layoffs — eliminating jobs with good salaries and benefits — came in large numbers from national and multinational corporations that included ConocoPhillips, Halliburton and Baker Hughes. And BHP Billiton's Farmington office is expected to cut as many as 25 workers by April.
Proposed Bureau of Land Management regulations related to venting and flaring, would require the industry to do more to protect the environment and surrounding communities. Supporters of the new rules point out that current regulations have not been updated since 1989, about 20 years before many modern industry operations and technological advances, such as multi-stage hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, became industry standards.
Both the industry and local city and county officials have complained the proposed rules will reduce oil and natural gas production even further, spelling losses of billions of dollars to the state, with similar impacts locally over the next two decades.
Cities and county
All four municipalities — Farmington, Aztec, Bloomfield and Kirtland — will have municipal elections in March. During the Kirtland election, voters will have the opportunity to select their mayor.
The new year will be a year of construction for Aztec as work begins on projects that have been years in the planning. Projects include the southern section of the East Aztec Arterial Route that will direct truck traffic away from downtown, the North Main Avenue corridor extension project and the sewer outfall line, which will replace antiquated sewer lines. Aztec commissioners will also decide whether or not the city will continue to operate the Hidden Valley Golf Course, which has not generated the expected revenues.
Also on the agenda is Bloomfield's exploration of creating a city-owned utility. A district judge will make a ruling in January in regards to Farmington’s motion to dismiss Bloomfield’s lawsuit alleging breach of contract in relation to the acquisition of electric utility infrastructure. If the judge rules in favor of Bloomfield, the court will then decide the scope of Bloomfield’s rights to acquire the utility under a 1960 judgment and decree.
Farmington will focus on upgrading and expanding in 2016.
This includes expanding recreational opportunities at Farmington Lake and the river trail, according to City Manager Rob Mayes. He said the city will also work on engineering studies and architectural planning for the Farmington Civic Center remodel and expansion project.
Mayes said Farmington City Hall is also preparing for a “badly needed facelift.” He said the city did not want to spend money on a new building. Instead, the current building will get new windows and a new façade that could help improve its energy efficiency, and freshen its appearance.
Farmington also will continue to focus on revitalizing its downtown, including implementing the Complete Streets project that aims to make Main Street more pedestrian friendly.
San Juan County officials are looking to initiate and complete several projects in 2016.
Topping the list provided by County Operations Officer Mike Stark is the Piñon Hills connection project. The joint project between the county and the city of Farmington is expected to start in late summer. The county’s portion would link County Road 3000 to County Road 390, which is intended to improve access to Farmington from the Crouch Mesa area.
Also on the list is a request for capital outlay funding from the state to start the first phase of the Flora Vista Sewer Project. The first phase is designed and has received environmental and cultural clearances. When funding is received, construction will start, Stark said in an email.
Another focus is the Harper Valley Sewer Project, which is in the design phase with construction anticipated to start in late 2016.
“This project would decommission the existing wastewater treatment system that serves approximately 135 homes within the Harper Valley Subdivision and connect those homes to the Valley Water and Sanitation Sewer District sewer line in Kirtland,” Stark wrote.
The county also will start designing a 3-mile walking path in Kirtland connecting Kirtland Elementary School to the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 and continuing to Kirtland Central High School and the former Ruth N. Bond Elementary School.
Construction is slated to begin in late fall with a funding grant from the New Mexico Department of Transportation that requires matching dollars from the county.
Although there is plenty of good news about development and improvements, city, county and Navajo Nation officials are still dealing with the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill, which released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers in August. New Mexico's federal lawmakers are continuing to call for long-term monitoring and mining reform in response to the spill.
State Environment Secretary Flynn told The Daily Times that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has balked at supporting local long-term river monitoring efforts. The New Mexico Environment Department, along with other state agencies, say they are committed to addressing the spill through the Long-Term Impact Review Team and its citizens’ advisory committee.
In July, leaders of the Navajo Nation's executive, legislative and judicial branches signed a three-page agreement listing their priorities. Among those priorities are infrastructure development, housing, education, public safety and natural resources.
As President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and the Navajo Nation Council enter their second year in office, the focus will be on trying to find solutions through collaboration.
Also in the new year, the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. — formed to oversee operations at the Navajo Mine, which was acquired by the tribe in 2013 — will consider acquiring a 7-percent ownership interest in the Four Corners Power Plant, which is supplied by the mine.
NTEC also will complete the transfer of responsibilities for operating the mine from former owner BHP Billiton to the recently contracted Bisti Fuels Co. by the end of the year.
The $73 million project to rebuild Farmington High School will enter the second phase of construction this year, which means most of the current campus structures will be demolished.
A three-story classroom building that covers about 60,000 square feet is on track for completion this summer as part of the first phase. Classes will take place in the new building and portable classrooms during the fall while most buildings on campus are rebuilt.
Loose shale was found under the site planned for the new competition gymnasium, which could cause up to $1.8 million in additional costs. The final costs for the second phase are expected to be finalized by March.
Other changes for students and teachers in 2016 involve new performance evaluation methods.
Administrators in school districts across San Juan County are preparing for the second round of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing. The first round of scores was released last year.
The majority of San Juan County elementary and middle school students are not proficient in English and math, according to the results released in October by the New Mexico Public Education Department. And, with a few exceptions, high school students across the county did not perform better than the state average on the PARCC exams.
Students also will see the math and English testing combined into one testing window, with a reduction in testing time of about 90 minutes.
In its second and final year as a member of District 1-5A, the Piedra Vista wrestling team will try to capture its sixth consecutive state title. The Panthers, who will be realigned to 1-6A next season in all sports, are cruising along with top-three finishes through their first three meets, including a second place finish at the Panther Classic on Dec. 19.
Shiprock will be joined by Navajo Prep in District 1-4A when the realignment goes into effect prior to the 2016 fall sports season.
In District 1-4A, rivals Bloomfield and Kirtland Central have looked evenly matched early in the season. Both squads placed in the top four of the Panther Classic. KC upset Bloomfield by winning the Dual in the Dunes in Gallup on Dec. 5.
Shiprock is once again head and shoulders above the competition in District 1-4A girls basketball. The Lady Chieftains are looking to play in the state title game for the fourth time in seven years. In 1-5A, the Aztec girls are turning heads after winning a four-day tournament in Garden Grove, Calif., in late December.
Farmington and PV are off to great starts in boys basketball and will be in the mix for a district title along with Gallup. Farmington has knocked off PV once already this year and will play them at least two more times. When PV moves up to 1-6A next year, Farmington will be joined by Kirtland Central and Bloomfield in 1-5A. The Bloomfield boys basketball team was the early-season favorite to win the District 1-4A title and Kirtland Central and Shiprock have done nothing to sway that notion so far this season.
Crime and courts
In October, former New Mexico Title Co. owner Bobby Willis was charged in U.S. District Court with two counts of wire fraud on allegations he stole nearly $1 million from a San Juan County couple through an investment scheme. Though a trial set to begin Jan. 11 will likely be delayed, Willis is still expected to appear at trial in McKinley County in March on state charges of embezzlement and fraud connected to the dissolution of the New Mexico Title Co. in 2012.
Also on the docket in 2016 are several high-profile murder trials.
Cody Soto, 26, of Bloomfield, was charged in September 2013 with first-degree murder on allegations he fatally stabbed his ex-girlfriend Brandy Robinson. Her body was found naked in a remote location near the Bisti Highway on June 22, 2013. A two-week trial for Soto is set to begin on Jan. 19.
Levi Wilson, one of two defendants accused of causing a fatal shootout on Hopi Street in July 2013, was expected to appear at trial beginning on Jan. 4, but the trial has been delayed until April, according to court records. Wilson's co-defendant, Lawrence Kellywood, pleaded no contest to aggravated battery with a deadly weapon after a week-long trial in May ended in a mistrial. Kellywood, who had faced charges of attempted murder, was sentenced to time served and unsupervised probation.
And Raul Avalos is charged with first-degree murder, along with several counts of assault and battery, on allegations he fatally shot one man and injured several others during a St. Patrick's Day party in March 2012. A week-long trial is set to begin June 27.
Other court action will include a lawsuit filed by dozens of current and former inmates who have accused the San Juan County Adult Detention Center and its contracted medical providers of providing negligent medical care, resulting in disfigurements, infections and undue pain. Three inmates died at the detention center in the first three months of 2015, and their families have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the jail and its current healthcare provider, the San Juan Regional Medical Center. Medical center and county officials have said the claims are without merit.
A federal judge is expected to rule by Tuesday on a request by the plaintiffs that a court-appointed doctor provide medical oversight at the jail to ensure inmates are receiving adequate medical care while the lawsuit is pending. The judge will also rule in February on multiple motions for dismissal filed by the defendants. A jury trial is currently scheduled to begin on April 17, 2017.
Daily Times beat reporters James Fenton, Steve Garrison, Joshua Kellogg, Hannah Grover and Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this report.