Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Bernalillo, Corrales, Santa Ana Caught in Middle of Dispute Over Dispatch Center

Rio Rancho, Sandoval County managers trade accusations


The city of Rio Rancho and Sandoval County officials are engaged in a power struggle over the regional dispatch center that relays emergency police and fire calls to the appropriate responding agency. Caught in the middle are the town of Bernalillo, village of Corrales and Santa Ana Pueblo who are now facing a Sept. 15 deadline to effectively pick a side.

The five governmental entities first entered into a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) in 2003 when the Sandoval County Regional Emergency Communications Center (SCRECC) was created. The JPA was updated in 2015. Throughout the duration of the agreement Rio Rancho has served as the fiscal agent.

The dispatch center is governed by a board made up of representatives from each government entity, each representative with one vote when decisions are made. But as the fiscal agent, operator of the dispatch facility and entity that responds to 60% of calls for service, Rio Rancho asked that the JPA be revised in a way that gives it more of a say in matters.

Under its proposal presented to the board in July, Rio Rancho would have representatives make up half the board, but a majority would be needed to pass any action. Alternatively, the city has suggested the same make up of the board but giving Rio Rancho veto power.

Sandoval County countered with its own proposal that keeps limits on Rio Rancho’s authority.

Both asked their JPA partners to respond, but none of them did.

County complains about JPA

Weeks later, Sandoval County Manager Wayne Johnson sent a letter to Rio Rancho City Manager Matt Geisel, copying Bernalillo, Corrales and Santa Ana elected officials, accusing the city of breaching the 2015 JPA. He listed five alleged instances of Rio Rancho breaking the agreement, as well as violating the state’s Open Meetings Act and the Inspection of Public Reports Act.

Johnson states in the letter that under the JPA the SCRECC board is “an entity separate from the parties” in the JPA, so itself is subject to OMA and IPRA under state law.

“The fiscal agent’s refusal to recognize the legal status of the SCRECC JPA is at the heart of the County’s disagreement,” Johnson wrote in the Aug. 18 letter.

He added that he has met with city officials in public and private to try to resolve their differences. Having failed that, Johnson said the county was invoking the final clause of the JPA – mediation.

In a phone interview, Johnson said the county’s call for mediation is a last resort. “We tried to resolve but at the end of the day it is a fundamental disagreement, and the last step is mediation,” Johnson said.

The county manager said there’s case law that supports the county’s stance that the SCRECC board is a separate legal entity.

“There are a whole host of issues that can arise if it’s not a legal entity, including issues with the Open Meetings Act,” he said. “I’m worried about liability that will come out of this as part of the equation. As a (former) state auditor, I know some bad things can happen under these kinds of arrangements.”

Johnson said such arrangements can lead to funds being used inappropriately because they are subject to lack of compliance monitoring.

In his offer for mediation, Johnson asked the city to select from a list of three mediators, or provide their own list for the county to choose from, so that “a just and equitable solution” could be found.

“It is our hope that the mediation process will provide clarity to what is, at its core, a legal question regarding the SCRECC JPA’s structure and legal status,” he wrote. “It is the County’s belief that a regional dispatch center is the most cost-effective means to provide quality dispatch services to the public. But to do so, the members must abide by the agreements as written and work through the governing board to address operational problems as they arise.”

City’s response

A few days later, Aug. 21, Geisel fired off a six-page response, also copying officials with the other entities.

In the letter, Geisel responded to each of the county’s claims that the city broke the JPA and one upped the county by citing six alleged instances of it breaking the agreement. Sandoval County Fire Chief Eric Masterson, who until recently chaired the SCRECC board, was named in five of the alleged infractions.

The city, in turn, accuses Sandoval County of botching one IPRA request, resulting in a lawsuit that Rio Rancho settled with its own funds.

He also disputes the county’s assertion that the SCRECC is a separate legal entity under the JPA. “But if it were to be a separate legal entity, insurance coverage is currently not identified and other overhead costs/risks are not properly identified or funded,” Geisle wrote. “Historically, all of these costs and liabilities have been borne by the City of Rio Rancho, with less costs and liabilities enjoyed by other JPA members…”

Geisel said that mediation was premature because Bernalillo, Corrales and Santa Ana have not responded to the proposals submitted in July. If there were mediation over the 2015 JPA, it would be futile because the JPA is flawed, Geisel wrote, starting with its failure to lay out a mediation process.

Geisel said the city would not agree to the county’s terms for mediation. The city would only participate in mediation if all entities participated, each of them agreed on how the mediator would be selected, the mediation process was focused on restating the current JPA, and the cost of the mediation was shared equally among members.

In addition, the city put Bernalillo, Corrales and Santa Ana on the spot by calling for them to respond to proposals by Sept. 15 under the threat that Rio Rancho would pull out of the JPA.

Geisel said that their failure to respond by that date “will cause the City of Rio Rancho to immediately consider its withdrawal” from the JPA.

Should the city do that, new individual user agreements for emergency services would be offered to Bernalillo, Corrales and Santa Ana without an increase in costs, he wrote.

In an interview, Geisel said Rio Rancho is trying to create a more equitable situation. While the others chip in varying percentages of operating costs, employees are city employees operating out of a city building. The city makes up 70% of the county’s population and dispatches more than 60% of the calls to Rio Rancho police or Fire and Rescue.

“I think we all agree that the documents need to be updated,” he said of the JPA. “The angle the county has taken is very much in the vein of controlling the center in a manner that’s an imbalance to the city of Rio Rancho.”

Geisel said he has met with Johnson over the matter numerous times. It’s unclear how Bernalillo, Corrales and Santa Ana will respond to the city’s deadline.

Corrales Mayor Jim Fahey said only that he would support “an amicable agreement.”

At a village council meeting last month, Fahey seemed to support mediation.

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres said he'd like to keep all parties in the JPA together.

"It's out hope that all parties can come together to keep a reliable  emergency communications center. Our feeling as a town is that we're best served under one roof," he said in a phone interview. "If we can come to where we find common ground, that's the best route to take."

The bottom line, he said, is that everyone's top priority to provide efficient and effective quality emergency services to citizens.

Officials with Santa Ana Pueblo did not respond to the Signpost’s inquiry.

Knives out

Something that may come out of the dispute is a second regional dispatch center in Sandoval County. It would relay calls to first responders outside Rio Rancho, including Bernalillo, Corrales, Santa Ana and the other pueblos, Cuba and the Jemez Valley corridor. The current facility would dispatch calls in Rio Rancho.

That’s what Sandoval County commissioners are considering and moved toward prioritizing at a commission meeting last month.

Commissioners set its Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan (ICIP) in advance of the 2024 legislative session. For the first time, a regional dispatch center appeared on the list, prioritized at No. 4 of the staff’s recommendations. It was listed at an estimated cost of $11.9 million.

Public Works Director Mark Hatzenbuhler said having items on the ICIP list improves the chance of it getting state funding. He emphasized the cost for the dispatch center was only an estimate. “We’re going to do some studies and stuff like that to see how it will work, if it will work, or if it’s even feasible,” he said.

For one, while the county is growing at a dramatic rate, nearly all the growth is in Rio Rancho. So an expensive new dispatch center would be serving an area that generates about 30% of all calls, he said.

The fiscal report estimated 51 employees, but Heil said proportionally fewer than 15 were needed. He also contested the estimated size of the facility, suggesting maybe a new building was even needed for a dispatch center if there were space available in the county administrative building.

The four commissioners present voted to move the dispatch center from fourth to seventh on the ICIP list.

Afterward, Heil indicated he supported compromise on the JPA. “I think we need to start considering concessions and go back to the table and start talking about it,” he said.


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