By JO LUTZ
Daily Press Staff
Tempers exploded at Monday night’s regular meeting of the Bayard City Council, where councilors split over whether to rescind an earlier resolution in support of a state Local Choice Energy Act. The city’s support was ultimately rescinded in a 3-1 vote over the objection of Councilor Frances Gonzales.
However, the council did vote unanimously and enthusiastically to move forward with a long-awaited water regionalization project.
The meeting’s fireworks began with Bruce Ashburn speaking on behalf of PNM, urging councilors to rescind Supporting Resolution 31-2022 Affordable Clean Energy, which had previously passed without input from the utility company.
“There’s a lot of people who want outside interests to come into the state,” he said. “Over the last five years, PNM has donated back into the state $26 million. Would this program that is proposed affect our ability to do that? I can tell you that it probably will.”
Ashburn walked through the current version of Senate Bill 165, the Local Choice Energy Act, highlighting areas of concern, including an opt-out provision that would require a negative declaration by the customer not to be served by their local choice provider if one is created, and a couple of provisions which, he said, indicated a reduced role for the Public Regulation Commission compared with its regulation of PNM.
The next speaker was Rick Lass of Public Power New Mexico, a coalition of nonprofits backing the local choice legislation. He said that city councils like Bayard would be the local choice energy providers under the proposed law, and the only contractors would be those they chose to work with — in- or out-of-state.
“Unfortunately, I’ve watched PNM not just resist, but actively fight against renewable energy, and now they’re fighting against community solar,” Lass said. “This is about Bayard being able to create a revenue stream. Residents will more than likely pay lower rates.”
He said that of the other states that already have local energy choice, locally owned utilities have better rates than investor-owned utilities.
Councilor Jose Diaz asked why the legislation was necessary.
“Can’t we already do this if we want to?” he said.
“The investor-owned utilities have a legal monopoly in the state — that’s the whole point,” Lass replied. “You can’t just set up your own thing.”
Councilor Eloy Medina then asked a couple of focused questions, clarifying with Lass that local choice providers would be regulated by the state PRC, and that PNM would still be responsible for transmission and distribution of the electricity and maintaining the lines.
Diaz was upset that when Lass had last spoken to the council, he did not provide the text of the bill. Gonzales pointed out that it had not been written yet, and Lass said he had emailed it to the council the day it had been drafted.
Steve Fischmann spoke next, introducing himself as having served on the PRC as a commissioner representing District 5, which includes Bayard.
“There is an anomaly that encourages public utilities to waste money,” he said. “They get guaranteed rate of return through the PRC rate naming process.”
He pointed to past examples where, he said, PNM had planned deliberately wasteful spending to put on their balance sheet to pass on to consumers.
“Municipally owned utilities don’t have the same incentive to waste,” Fischmann said. “They don’t have to pay income tax, there’s no 10 percent return to shareholders.
“More than half the country has power utilities that do not own generation,” he continued. “This is a conservative and prudent way to approach this.”
Gonzales moved to keep the city’s support resolution unchanged. Her motion died without a second.
“I’m really disappointed with this group,” Gonzales said. “I think we’re going to regret not supporting it. My bills are higher than all hell.”
Councilor Raul Villanueva countered, “This is not something that we’re against. If it goes through, we’ll act on it.”
Diaz, the most vocal critic of the local energy resolution, earlier in the meeting also voiced opposition to some proposed changes within the town. He opposed a weekend hours change for the Bayard maintenance department that would allow for more flexibility and on-call hours, which Diaz said would lead to more overtime.
“Changing the schedule is not beneficial to the citizens of Bayard,” he said.
“When we hire department heads, we need to give them benefit of the doubt,” Gonzales said. “Reading it, it makes sense to me … maybe we can look at it in 30 or 45 days.”
Diaz eventually voted with his peers to approve the change in hours with the provision the council should check back on its implementation.
He also put aside objections to a minimum-hours rule proposed as part of grant-funded stipend policy for the city’s volunteer firefighters in order to approve allowing the $25,000 to be dispersed. Medina supported Diaz in the addition of a requirement for a physical and liability waiver.
Councilors all agreed to approve an updated joint powers agreement for the Grant County Water Commission. Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments’ Priscilla Lucero was on hand to explain the background.
“We’ve been working on regionalizing water systems since 2006,” Lucero said, describing the obstacles and periods of dormancy and saying that hopes have been recently revived by a nonbinding offer from Freeport-McMoRan for water rights to 200 acre-feet for Hurley and 250 acre-feet for Santa Clara.
She said that this agreement would preserve all entities’ ownership of their own water systems, and the only regionalized ownership would be of an additional regional water distribution line. The joint powers agreement among Silver City, Grant County, Bayard, Hurley and Santa Clara would position the region to take advantage of $120 million from the New Mexico Unit Fund that will soon become available for water projects in the region, as well as potential additional funds from the state.
“There’s a big statewide movement to regionalize water systems because of lack of workforce and the general operations of these systems,” Lucero said. “My goal is to ensure we are project-ready.”
The last action of the Bayard City Council was the termination of city maintenance employee Gabriel Flores, following discussion.
Jo Lutz may be reached at [email protected]