Petition to put the police building’s financing on the ballot may throw wrench in authoritarianism

Authoritarian governments keep their public in ignorance of facts and plans and evidence. They do this by confusing the issues. They give you endorsements by personalities and propaganda and outright lies to convince you your hard-earned cash is being well spent. If you don’t agree, you’ll be scapegoated.

The police building is a good example of authoritarianism at work.

The city commission confused the issue of a police building by skipping small-D government steps that would have ensured that the public supports the project and is willing to pay for it.

The project itself has never been put to a public hearing. The city commission has never approved the project, just how it is to be funded.

No engineering or architectural plans have been presented. Chief of Police Luis Tavizon told me, during a break in a city meeting, not while addressing the public, that the old plans from 2017 will be used, as will the same engineering/architectural firm.

Who did Tavizon show the plans to? A local personality, Caleb Cooper, the pastor of New Hope Revival Church.  He rocketed to local consiousness by sponsoring  a Cowboys for Trump parade. Cowboys for Trump was founded by Couy Griffin, who came to national attention by being the first elected official to be removed from office (as an Otero County commissioner) because of his role in the January 6 insurrection. Cooper’s parade included a paramilitary group from Albuquerque, which stood guard over the church grounds with their big guns across their chests. Those attending were later deputized en masse by then-Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton to help with the expected (or ginned up?) unrest over covid lockdowns. Cooper made a movie out of it, bragging about his part in the rebelling against health orders.

The unholy alliance of Police Chief Tavizon and religious demagogue Cooper was on display at the Nov. 15 city commission meeting. So much for separation of church and state. Cooper said he had been shown the plans and the public should go ahead with it because Tavizon is “the best chief of police the city has ever had,” reducing the project to a personality endorsement.  City Commissioner Shelly Harrelson and Mayor Amanda Forrister crowded around Cooper and his wife during the meeting break. Lots of smiles. I would not be surprised if Cooper had told his church members to vote for them. Forrister squeaked by and was returned for a second term. Harrelson was not returned to her seat and will be gone by Jan. 1.

During the Oct. 11 and Oct. 23 meetings Tavizon had several police department employees, the local district attorney and others decry the deplorable state of the current building. No mention that it was the police department’s choice, what it cost to buy the building and what it cost to turn it into a police building or how much the debt was and how much is still owing.

The only official public hearing, the only ordinance, the only little-D governmental process observed was the funding for the project. That hearing was on Nov. 15. This is when the lies started, going beyond the drama and diversion.

Harrelson called me a liar without naming me, claiming that I misinformed the public by stating that the “bond money” would be used for water projects. Huh? I said the .25 gross receipts taxes could be used for water projects.  She went on to say the .25 percent gross receipts tax cannot be used to fund anything but “public safety” projects. Forrister backed her up. And now, Frances Luna, publisher and owner of the Sentinel newspaper and former city commissioner is repeating the lie.

Luna, in her regular opinion column, Nov. 24, put it in an unnamed citizen’s mouth that Ron Fenn is a “madman,” and one “who doesn’t seem to be happy with anything,” because he is circulating a petition to put the question of using 1.225 percent of the city’s gross receipts taxes to fund the police building on the ballot. She made it all about being grateful for the police. Ra ra and scapegoating, the usual propaganda palaver.

“It’s likely you’ll hear that the $4.5 million could go to repair the water infrastructure,” Luna wrote. “But those dollars are different. They are two different pots full of money, that can’t be cross-spent. The same goes for those who ask why the money was spent on the circus roundabouts. That money was earmarked for a certain project, and couldn’t be used for ‘just anything.’”

She got the “circus” part about the roundabouts right, the rest is nonsense.

In 2018 the New Mexico Department of Transportation asked the city commission if they wanted roundabouts and if they did so, then the city would have to move its water and sewer lines at its own expense. The city also had to promise it would pitch in for landscaping. The city commission approved the roundabouts, thus “earmarking” the money. The landscaping was later reduced to the city paying for simply seeding the dirt.

June 14, 2011, the city commission passed an ordinance to charge shoppers .25 percent gross receipts taxes, the money to supposedly go to police salaries and retention, thus earmarking the money.

In 2019 the state legislature passed a bill that became state law 7-19D-9, which said local GRT could be de-earmarked, unlinked from its prior proscribed use. To do so, an ordinance amending the original has to be passed, the law states.

Chris Muirhead of Modrall Sperling, the city’s financial consultant, said as much at the Nov. 15 meeting. So take note, Luna, Harrelson and Forrister. It’s not just me saying it.

The city commission could have passed an ordinance re-purposing the .25 percent GRT for water projects. Instead, the city commission chose to encumber that revenue for debt. It passed an ordinance on Nov. 15 to issue $4.5 million in bonds, the .25 percent GRT, as well as encumbering another .975 percent of its total 1.8125 percent local GRT to pay off $4.5 million of bond debt.

I repeat. The city encumbered a total of 1.225 percent of the city’s GRT as collateral for the police building bond debt. The city commission claims only the .25 will be used, but if it’s not in writing, it’s fair game.

State law 7-19D-9 says if the GRT revenue is being used to pay off a debt, then its use cannot be changed.

Fenn’s petition seeks to stop the city commission from encumbering 1.225 percent of the local GRT for debt, otherwise there will be less money to fix the water and wastewater crises. If the citizens vote this financing down, then the city commission could pass an ordinance to switch the .25 GRT currently earmarked for “public safety” for “general fund” use, which would include water or wastewater projects as well as a police building.

It’s silly-scary of Luna to say the GRT and roundabouts come from different pots of money, as if the earmarking were done without consciousness or responsibility or authority by the city commission. But Luna’s vagueness is part of her propaganda gig. No details, no facts, no citing city ordinances or state law. The rule of law gets in the way of authoritarianism.

Because the city commission and Luna are floating this lie about the .25 GRT being unusable for anything else, the real question has never been addressed: Can we afford the police building above and beyond the water and wastewater crises?

This project is not on the city’s Infrastructure Capital Improvements Projects list. It came out of nowhere and was pushed through on authoritarian greased skids. It needs far more public vetting.

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Kathleen Sloan
Kathleen Sloan

Kathleen Sloan has been a local-government reporter for 17 years, covering counties and cities in three states—New Mexico, Iowa and Florida. She has also covered the arts for various publications in Virginia, New Mexico and Iowa. Sloan worked for the Truth or Consequences Herald newspaper from 2006 to 2013; it closed December 2019. She returned to T or C in 2019 and founded the online newspaper, the Sierra County Sun, with Diana Tittle taking the helm as editor during the last year and a half of operation. The Sun closed December 2021, concurrent with Sloan retiring. SierraCountySun.org is still an open website, with hundreds of past articles still available. Sloan is now a board member of the not-for-profit organization, the Sierra County Public-Interest Journalism Project, which supported the Sun and is currently sponsoring the Sierra County Citizen, another free and open website. Sloan is volunteering as a citizen journalist, covering the T or C beat. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.

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10 Comments

  1. Chief Alvarez tried the same thing years ago (2015 maybe?). He wanted a law enforcement center with Sheriffs’, state police, animal shelter, and even State Forest Service there. The Armory is full of asbestos he was told and couldn’t be renovated economically. New chief, new game.

  2. So I was supportive of the plan back then and was supportive “now” until I read about Cooper’s involvement (AND the asbestos issue, which I think I knew but had forgotten about). Where do I sign the petition in opposition or demanding citywide referendum, or whatever is needed to reverse this travesty. So officially I “live” in the county, but apparently because we’re on city electric, as of most recent districting changes, we vote in the city.

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