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Looking back before moving forward

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Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2013 12:00 am

As we prepare to enter the New Year, the Observer offers a look back at what we believe are 2013’s top 10 stories.

In descending order, they are:

No. 1: Economic developments

Rio Rancho suffered an economic blow in September when Intel Corp. announced it was “redeploying” 400 employees of the 3,300 at its local computer chip-making plant.

“Due to a shifting market, we are making some difficult business decisions,” company spokeswoman Natasha Martell Jackson said at the time.

On the bright side, Martell Jackson said Intel was “absolutely not” leaving Rio Rancho.

Also, gains in positions at Stolar Research Corp. and Alliance Data Systems helped offset losses at Intel.

The high-tech Stolar held the grand opening of its Rio Rancho office in September. The local branch started with 21 employees in the AMREP building and could employ up to 50 people someday.

As for Alliance Data, by the end of its first year in Rio Rancho, Senior Director of Operations Beverly McMillan said the call center had about 350 employees, up from 308 when it took over from Victoria’s Secret. She expected to reach about 510 employees by the end of the year and 600 by the end of 2014.

No. 2: A special election

In August, 59 percent of participating voters declined to halve the Higher Education Gross Receipts Tax.

City Councilors Lonnie Clayton, Tim Crum, Mark Scott and Chuck Wilkins had called for a special election to ask voters if they wanted to change the quarter-percent sales tax to one-eighth of a percent. They promised to institute a one-eighth percent gross receipts tax (GRT) earmarked for police and fire services if voters approved the cut.

Any four-year university could negotiate with the city to receive money for facilities and infrastructure from the Higher Ed GRT, but only UNM West had done so.

The issue was controversial, not only over whether to use the money for higher education or public safety, but also over whether the plan to fund public safety with a GRT increment allowed by the state to offset losses from decreasing hold-harmless revenues was appropriate.

Hold-harmless money replaces sales tax income from food and medical services.

No. 3: No GO

A majority of the Rio Rancho Governing Body decided in December not to put either a general obligation bond question or a new gross receipts tax question on the ballot in March.

Clayton, Crum, Scott and Wilkins out-voted Councilors Tamara Gutierrez and Patricia Thomas to keep the GO bond question off the ballot.

A general obligation bond would have led to an increase in property taxes from 1.789 mills, or $1.789 per $1,000 of taxable value, to 2.067 mills. According to city information, owners of a $200,000 house would pay $18.54 per year more in property taxes.

None of the councilors voted for a new GRT.

A majority of voters would have had to approve any of the measures for them to take effect. The money would have gone to repair deteriorating roads.

No. 4: The golf course

The Apodaca family put Chamisa Hills Country Club, the location of Rio Rancho’s only golf course, up for sale last spring. Local businessman Michael Schumacher announced his plan to buy the club and turn around its deteriorating golf course and shrinking membership.

Scott solicited support for Schumacher, who asked the city to decrease rates for recycled water irrigating the golf course. However, a debate arose over whether it was appropriate to have taxpayers subsidize that water.

Before the city reached a decision, Schumacher backed out of the sale in September.

“Unfortunately as we have learned through our due diligence, the renewal also faces a difficult seller and is challenged by a less-than-receptive governing body,” Schumacher wrote in a letter to City Manager Keith Riesberg.

He also said his company found amended contract terms “unpalatable.”

Since then, there has been no public announcement of the club’s fate. The situation raises concerns that the golf course could be abandoned, hurting the economy as well as quality of life and property values for property owners along the course.

No. 5: Administrative changes

Three top positions in the city — city manager, police chief and mayor — underwent changes in 2013.

In March, city governing body members unanimously approved hiring Keith Riesberg as the new city manager. Recently, they unanimously affirmed their confidence in Riesberg.

In September, Mayor Tom Swisstack announced he wouldn’t run for a third term.

“It was a conscious decision that was difficult to get to because I love Rio Rancho so much and I love working with the people,” he said.

Swisstack is the only mayor in Rio Rancho’s history to win more than one term. Three people have since announced their candidacy for mayor.

Within hours of Swisstack’s announcement, then-Police Chief Robert “Bob” Boone announced he would retire at the end of November after 41 years in law enforcement, nine of which he spent leading Rio Rancho Police Department.

Deputy Chief Steven Beckett is serving as acting police chief. He is one of eight candidates set to give a first round of Skype interviews on Jan. 3, said city spokesman Peter Wells.

No. 6: School boundaries

As the 2013-14 school year headed into its 2014 portion, the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education was getting ready to format new boundaries for the 2014-15 school year.

Two options have been proposed by district staff to juggle attendance areas for several elementary schools in order to relieve overcrowding at Ernest Stapleton, Maggie Cordova and Martin Luther King Jr. elementaries. The board is expected to decide on a plan in January.

Construction of Joe Harris Elementary, to be built south of Northern Boulevard and west of Unser Boulevard, will ultimately alleviate overcrowding. Although the district has money for its construction, it doesn’t have the capital to outfit the school.

The two boundary options are not a final recommendation, but have been presented for public input and comment, and they may changed before a final recommendation is made to the school board.

The options also change feeder alignment from elementary schools through middle schools and into the high schools by eliminating elementary attendance zones that cross Northern.

No. 7: Water woes

City water and wastewater system users began paying significantly higher rates in February. The increases were meant to keep the systems financially solvent and, in the case of water rates, help pay for replacement of leaky water service lines.

The city received a little more than $1 million for water line replacement from the state Legislature in 2013. As a result, the Rio Rancho Governing Body decided not to make the July water rate increase as high as expected.

Wells said replacement of the most leak-prone lines is in the bid process, with work likely to begin near the end of the first quarter of 2014.

Adding to water system troubles, a water main broke at Northern and Unser in May. The city had to use $413,000 from the utilities fund ending balance to pay for repairs to the 24-inch iron pipe and surrounding roads.

No. 8: Flooding

Unusually heavy rains in September caused flooding in and around Rio Rancho. Crews worked around the clock that weekend to get affected roads passable again.

The Montoyas Arroyo flooded, damaging Northern and Southern boulevards and blocking the roads for a time. Areas of town without paved roads, curbs and gutters suffered sinkholes, exposed utility lines, silted-over yards and left residents blocked in their driveways. The Rio Rancho Sports Complex was damaged as well.

Silt filled the Harvey Jones Channel in Corrales.

Months later, Rio Rancho and Corrales were still dealing with the damage, which was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair. Some residents, especially those in Rio Rancho’s Unit 17, which doesn’t have road and drainage infrastructure to handle flood waters, were frustrated.

No. 9: Parks and more

The City of Rio Rancho broke ground for A Park Above in October.

Designs include equipment for people with special needs so individuals of all ages and ability levels can play together. The construction will happen in phases over the next 10 months, and the park can be expanded later.

During a contentious approval process, supporters said individuals with disabilities and their families needed the park, which would encourage people to come spend money in Rio Rancho. Opponents said the city needed to prioritize public safety and infrastructure, and the special equipment should go in existing parks.

During the 2013 legislative session, Swisstack put in a request for capital outlay money for A Park Above. The move wasn’t illegal, but Clayton, Crum, Scott and Wilkins voted to censure him because the park hadn’t been among the top 10 projects the governing body had chosen.

In another achievement in a city park, the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society and the city opened an observatory at Rainbow Park in November. It houses three high-powered telescopes, and future plans include an open-air planetarium.

No. 10: Bovine visitors

After years of cattle wandering into Northern Meadows from the neighboring King Ranch, Rio Rancho Police cited ranch owner Bill King on charges of letting livestock roam at large.

The case is still making its way through court, and King has pleaded not guilty.

Northern Meadows residents said the cattle had been damaging their property while foraging for the green grass, despite efforts to keep them out with perimeter fences.

However, New Mexico is a “fence out” state, meaning property owners, not cattle owners, are responsible for keeping the animals off land where they’re not wanted.

Ranch manager Jamid Shupe offered to supply labor to build a better fence if the Northern Meadows Property Owners Association would buy the materials. The association wasn’t interested.

(Observer staff writer Gary Herron contributed to this story.)

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