Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
COLUMBUS – Piles of paperwork overwhelm the desk where Mayor Nicole Lawson has been trying to dig this border town out of a financial hole.
As Columbus tries to emerge from scandal – the former mayor, police chief and a village trustee were fingered in a gun-smuggling ring in 2011 – it is also working to recover from financial disarray left in its wake. Lawson, a self-described “paper-pusher,” says she and other dedicated employees and volunteers have put the village on the road to solvency.
“We’re almost entirely out of debt,” she said, adding that “the only reason that the village is in a better state is because of all the people that work here. No one person could do it.”
Not everyone in the village is happy, and even those who support the mayor say Columbus has a long way to go.
Lawson took on what might have been the town’s toughest job in 2011, when she was appointed to replace former mayor Eddie Espinoza after he was busted for his involvement in trafficking weapons to Mexico. She says she found the village deep in debt, and money and numerous financial records missing.
A joint investigation in 2011 by U.S. and Mexico law enforcement agencies nabbed a gun-smuggling ring of more than a dozen people that included Espinoza, former Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega and former Village trustee Blas “Woody” Gutierrez. Earlier this month, Espinoza was released early from federal prison, as was the Chaparral gun dealer, Ian Garland, who sold firearms to the ring.
An independent financial audit of the books Lawson inherited found the village records in such disorder that it began with a disclaimer: “As a result of turnover in village personnel and poor record-keeping, we were unable to obtain detail to any general ledger’s account.”
The report for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011, said the village had exceeded its authorized budget of $1.4 million by nearly $1.1 million and went on to cite dozens of “significant deficiencies” and “material weaknesses,” according to Wayne Sowell, local government division director of the state Department of Finance and Administration.
Sowell said his office has been monitoring the progress of Columbus since he joined the agency in September.
“We’re happy to see the mayor has been proactive in some of the things she has been doing,” he said. “There are still some hurdles to overcome, but she is taking on this position with a strong sense of fiduciary responsibility.”
Lawson, who in a soft voice describes herself as a one-time “Navy brat … raised by sailors and bikers,” recounts how she settled in Columbus a decade ago looking for redemption from a failed marriage and found work as a police dispatcher. She joined city hall as a clerk under Espinoza in 2006 and described the atmosphere in city hall at the time as “kill or be killed” – figuratively speaking – and the leadership as “aggressive.”
As mayor, she said she wanted to put the books in order, “take the hostility out of this office” and turn the operation into “a solution-oriented team” – no easy task in a town of 1,664 where finding skilled help willing to work for low wages isn’t easy. As Lawson puts it, “You can do a lot less and get paid more at Wal-Mart.”
Lawson herself earns a monthly stipend of $700 and gave up a job as an EMT in order to dedicate more time to the office, up to 60 hours a week, she says. She won few friends when she eliminated staff positions in public works and the library and began collecting past due water bills.
With the approval of the trustees, the village reduced municipal staff to 14 positions from 24 and made all assistant-level jobs part-time – cuts that also included shuttering the local police department in the wake of the gun-running scandal involving the former police chief.
On the revenue side, a new set of digital water meters improved the village’s ability to read meters and collect payment.
“There were thousands of dollars that people owed,” said village Trustee July McClure. “That hasn’t made her very popular, but it had to be done. I believe we are pulling out of the dark place we were in.”
For fiscal 2013-2014, the village’s budgeted expenditures fall about $250,000 below budgeted revenue of $1.3 million..
Martha Skinner, a local real estate broker and owner of Martha’s Place Bed & Breakfast, says Lawson “has made some headway,” but she says she is disappointed the village has not provided the community with more regular financial statements. “I’m terribly frustrated,” she said.
In Lawson’s office – one corner of a cluttered space shared with other city hall workers – a colorful painting hangs over the stacks of paperwork. It announces a play, “Halfway to Nowhere.”
Lawson says she has already decided not to run in next year’s March election.