Rio Rancho municipal election candidates debated the ever-present issues of public safety, jobs and roads, plus the more recent topic of Waste Management rate increases, at a forum Tuesday night at Premiere Cinemas.
City councilor and municipal judge candidates explained their views, and then the three mayoral candidates had a separate forum. District 3 councilor candidate Bob Tyler, who has no opponent, didn’t participate.
The Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce and Premiere Cinemas sponsored the event. Here are brief recaps of some of the views candidates expressed. Election day is Tuesday, March 6.
Councilor/Judge Candidates Forum
Issue: Why they’re running and what they hope to accomplish
Dawnn Robinson, incumbent District 2 city councilor: She said she’s running because she loves Rio Rancho because of the people, who give of themselves to help the community. She is proud of what the Rio Rancho Governing Body has accomplished in the last four years.
“I want to build on our success,” she said.
Robinson said she sponsored a bill to allow city road work to be done in-house instead of through a contract, leading to 22 miles of street improvements for the same price as about a mile and a half was done in the past. She promised to keep fighting for improved roads.
Robinson also said she wants to keep Rio Rancho business-friendly.
Jennifer Flor, District 5 city councilor incumbent: Flor said she’s running to make sure future generations have the opportunity to live in Rio Rancho that she has had and to ensure city leaders make good decisions.
She wants to focus on bringing in high-paying jobs, supporting growth of small and large businesses through incentives and increasing excitement about coming to Rio Rancho. Flor said the city owns land with infrastructure in place in City Center and she wants to use it to leverage jobs.
She also would like to hire a public relations firm to improve city marketing, and to have better technology for interacting with businesses and residents.
Paul Joseph Howell, city councilor District 5 challenger: “As a small-business person, I feel I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of the city,” Howell said.
He said he’d be accessible to people at his business, Turbo Threads.
The city needs new jobs and new businesses, he said. He would like to see better communication and coordination between the chamber of commerce, NAIOP commercial real estate development association and other organizations influential in economic development.
Howell said he loves Rio Rancho, but wouldn’t want to show Southern Boulevard, the golf course area or boarded-up stores to friends thinking of moving here.
“I want it to be an attractive place for businesses and individuals,” he said.
Andrea L. Padilla, city councilor District 2 challenger: Padilla said she believes her work on the Rio Rancho Public Schools advisory council, as sponsor of students clubs as a teacher at Eagle Ridge Middle School, and as a leader of the Native American Parents Advisory Council gives her perspective.
“I feel like I’d be a real voice for our people,” she said.
She promised things like the recent increase in Waste Management trash collection fees wouldn’t catch constituents by surprise if she were elected.
She also wants to pool money with utilities and Sandoval County to make things happen faster. Those entities should work together to make sure land has infrastructure to bring in businesses, Padilla said.
Ramon W. Montoya, municipal judge challenger: “I’m running for judge because I believe our city court could use a fresh perspective,” Montoya said.
He said the current judge has served well, but he wants to revamp the probation program to hold people 100 percent accountable and enforce consequences if they violate conditions of probation.
If elected, Montoya said, he would implement research-based programs to address the root of crime and expand alcohol abuse prevention classes, community service and vocational programs. He also wants to implement some of the Albuquerque and El Paso drug court policies here.
G. Robert Cook, incumbent municipal judge: Cook said he has a first-time offender program, and young people who go through it rarely end up back before him. He said he’s streamlined traffic court so people who just needed to show proof of insurance aren’t tied up for so long, and is working with the Sandoval County DWI program to find better options for DWI offenders.
Cook said he’d keep looking for better solutions and making sure the city proves its case against defendants before convicting them.
Issue: Keeping Rio Rancho safe
Flor: “First, we need to give our public safety personnel the tools they need to succeed,” she said, naming equipment and analytical technology as necessities.
Flor wants the city to give jobs and internships to youth so they can learn life skills and respect for the community. She’d like to eventually expand that program to private businesses.
She said the city needs a public safety task force to address issues early. The best way to combat crime is to improve economic conditions because if people have good jobs, they don’t need to turn to crime, Flor said.
Howell: He said public-safety employees need the best equipment and the support of the community. He also wants to develop neighborhood watch programs for abandoned areas such as the golf course.
Rio Rancho had only two murders last year.
“For a city of 100,000 people, that’s unheard of,” Howell said.
However, he said the city has a lot of property crime.
Padilla: She said the police department is understaffed by up to 12 officers.
“Cars need replacing,” Padilla added.
She said reducing crime starts with young people and advocated building up the police service aide program. Padilla also said the old fire trucks are dangerous.
She wants consistent revenue from bonds and other sources.
Montoya: He said offenders found guilty could expect sentences of jail time, fines and probation or community service from him, and he would give maximum sentences to repeat offenders.
Misdemeanor criminals don’t fear jail or fines, he continued.
“We have to address the root of the problem, whatever that may be for that particular person,” Montoya said.
Cook: He said he hears a lot of passion connected to code violations, but DWI kills people. So, he requires people arrested for DWI to wear ankle bracelets that monitor blood-alcohol levels to make sure they stay sober until trial.
Cook said he tried to minimize the time police officers spend in court so they can patrol more.
Robinson: She said Rio Rancho needs more police officers because when they’re visible, it sends a message that criminals will be caught. The city is safe because of citizens who volunteer and call in suspicious activity.
“We have a bond (with police) that is not duplicated in Albuquerque or very many other places,” Robinson said.
She also said the city needs to get officers what they need for their job.
Issue: Supporting small business and growing gross receipts tax revenue
Howell: “What you don’t need is the city making it worse,” he said.
Howell said the city should make small-business owners feel welcome and make them aware of organizations that provide resources for them.
Padilla: “We need to streamline processes to help businesses be successful in Rio Rancho,” she said.
She wants a liaison at City Hall to help businesses, and a partnership to bring in companies of all sizes.
Robinson: She said she was a founder of Buy Rio Rancho before becoming city councilor and formed a small-business coalition after being elected.
Robinson wants to get a small-business liaison and to streamline the procurement code and inspection process. She also said collaboration is necessary.
Flor: She said the city needs to prioritize improving technology so people can fill out business-related forms and scheduled inspections online. She also said the city needs a service-oriented atmosphere and tell people how to get more information, permits, etc.
Mayoral Candidates Forum
Issue: Roads and the proposed expansion of Paseo del Volcan
Christopher Muldrow, newcomer: Muldrow doesn’t support connecting PdV with I-40 right now.
“I think we need to focus on the roads we have,” he said, advocating for making repairs.
Muldrow said the city should partner with Sandoval County on roadwork because most county tax revenue comes from Rio Rancho.
Gregg Hull, incumbent: Hull said the city had to re-establish the trust of voters, who refused a proposed road bond before he took office.
After a 2016 road bond passed, Sara Road and Broadmoor Boulevard were fixed on time and under budget, he said. The surplus was earmarked for reconstruction of Southern Boulevard.
Hull said he supports expansion of PdV because it would create opportunity and bring in jobs west of the city.
Tom Swisstack, prior mayor: Swisstack said infrastructure is tied to economic development.
He wants to bring together all funding partners, such as utilities, the Southern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control Authority and the county, to develop a bond, possibly leveraging more money that way. He supports a $10 million road bond.
Issue: Fighting crime and reducing drug addiction
Hull: He said the city needs to invest in police, firefighters and good equipment for them. He supports the proposed public safety bond, and said moving expenses to such funding sources could free up money in the general fund to pay for raises or staff increases at the police department.
The community must rally to support people with addiction, Hull continued.
Swisstack: “Our public safety people are stretched to the max,” he said.
The city needs to talk about how to provide revenue, show people the facts and see if they want a steady revenue stream, Swisstack said.
Muldrow: “It all comes back to proper funding,” he said.
The city needs to have enough police officers and pay them properly, as well as funding the municipal court adequately. Rio Rancho’s sole municipal judge has been asking for a second judge for years, Muldrow said.
He questioned why the deputy city manager makes more than $100,000 per year while police are underfunded and the court has only one judge.
Issue: Bringing in more jobs
Swisstack: He said the city needs to educate people about the importance of spending money in Rio Rancho instead of Albuquerque, and be more aggressive with recruiting big companies. Swisstack said the city needs to be proactive by having shovel-ready sites and utility lines up to those properties because businesses want to open as quickly as possible.
If elected, he said, he’d reinstate his “A Team,” made up of officials and businesspeople, to address jobs.
Muldrow: He said he supported a reduction in commercial impact fees, as the current administration has helped institute. Rio Rancho is unattractive if its impact fees are three times higher than Albuquerque’s, he said.
Hull: He said he helped put an Industrial Revenue Bond in place so Safelite AutoGlass could locate here. The city has developed an impact fee schedule that reduces those fees by half for some companies, generating more interest from businesses, he said.
Issue: Reducing water rates while being financially responsible and encouraging conservation
Muldrow: He said increases in water rates are unacceptable, and utility money shouldn’t go into the general fund. He also criticized the city for spending $2 million on a wastewater treatment plant and then deciding to shut the plant down because they didn’t have enough money to continue.
Muldrow wants to reinstate the Utilities Commission.
Hull: He said the five-year plan for increases started before his administration, and the water system needed millions of dollars of improvements. The city is working on the improvements and, within the last three years, has paid for $20 million of them without going into debt or paying interest.
He said he’d like to see water rates decrease.
“I pay the same bill everybody else does,” he said.
Swisstack: He said a study would show what needs to happen with rates, and he opposed the previous increases, although as mayor, he couldn’t vote on the issue.
It’s the sewer charge that makes the water bills high, Swisstack said, and that’s because the city needs more lift stations since it’s so spread out.
“What we want to do is look at a long unified bonding cycle,” he said.
Issue: Supporting small business
Hull: He said he’s always advocated for incentives scaled to fit small businesses, similar to what the city does for big companies. Consumers need to shop locally instead of online, Hull said.
Swisstack: “Small business is vital to our city,” Swisstack said.
He wants to market the city more, draw Albuquerque residents to Rio Rancho with special events and create co-working spaces where entrepreneurs can develop their businesses. He said he’d use his A Team as a concierge service for companies, including helping with administrative processes.
Muldrow: He said, if elected, he’d create a small-business task force composed of big and small companies and residents. He also wants to review impact fees and permitting processes to address any problems.
Issue: The new Waste Management trash collection contract and what they’d do differently
Muldrow: He said he liked Waste Management as a company but would have put the contract up for bids. The lack of notification in advance of the fee increase appearing on bills also angered residents, he said.
(Editor’s note: Due to what Waste Management officials said was an unexpected delay in printing and distributing information on the new contract, residents weren’t directly notified of the increase until they saw their bills for the current quarter.)
Hull: He said he wished he’d asked about how the company planned to notify residents of the increase. However, he said Rio Rancho Governing Body members discussed the contract at four public meetings and a notice was in the paper before the approval.
Hull said he supports the enhanced services, including glass recycling, under the contract.
Swisstack: He said he agrees that Waste Management does a good job, but the city should have gone out for bids to make sure it was getting the best price.
“There’s nothing to lose but staff power,” he said.