Threats over high natural gas bills shutter Deming City Hall; some bills reach into the thousands of dollars - Albuquerque Journal

Threats over high natural gas bills shutter Deming City Hall; some bills reach into the thousands of dollars

A gas meter behind a business in downtown Deming on Tuesday. Deming utility bills jumped hundreds or even thousands of dollars in January, the main culprit being a spike in the cost of natural gas. (Algernon D’Ammassa/Deming Headlight)

DEMING – The city of Deming’s municipal offices were abruptly closed to the public Wednesday morning in response to threats against city staff after shockingly high utility bills arrived for approximately 6,000 customers who purchase natural gas through the city.

Deming police chief Clint Hogan announced that an unspecified number of “telephonic threats” targeted employees at approximately 10:42 a.m. and that he recommended placing the municipal building, which includes municipal court and the Deming Fire Department, on lockdown.

“City Hall will remain on lockdown until the investigation is complete and we are satisfied there is no longer a threat,” Hogan stated in a news release. He declined to provide further details, including the number of threats that were logged, citing the ongoing investigation.

The incident came as the city scrambled with a response to a spike in the cost of natural gas it purchases from the San Juan Basin straddling northern New Mexico and Colorado. Although city officials had warned at a Jan. 10 town hall that the next round of bills would be “outrageous” after per-unit prices soared past $3, residents and businesses reacted with shock after being billed hundreds or even thousands of dollars. While city bills include charges for municipal water, sewer and trash service, gas was the main culprit behind winter bills higher than any in recent memory.

Oly Ortiz, owner of the La Fonda Restaurant, said the bill for her business topped $4,000, and she counted herself lucky that the establishment had recently been closed for a few days. As she called around to other restaurants near downtown she learned most had received $5,000 statements and were frantic about how to stay afloat through winter.

Ortiz said she had already been considering painful cuts, including reduced staffing, at the restaurant.

“I have not raised my prices in over a year, and everything keeps going up,” she said. “I’m paying $90 for one case of eggs. We are struggling; we are really, really struggling.”

Michael Urbina, a married father of two, received a bill for $959.28, of which $906 was for gas. Last January, he paid $160.

“This bill is more than my rent, and now I can’t even turn my heat on to keep my kids warm,” he said. “And now we can’t even get the (meter) readings because they closed the office.”

The John Strand Municipal Building in downtown Deming, housing city offices as well as municipal court and the fire department, is seen on Wednesday after it was closed for the remainder of the week owing to threats against staff. (Algernon D’Ammassa/Deming Headlight)

Deming city government to pay 65 percent of utility bills

The city announced that offices would stay closed until Monday morning, as well as an emergency relief program under which the city will eat 65 percent of those bills.

Reporting that rates were currently $3.72 for residential and $3.73 for commercial service, the city said it would absorb $2.42 per unit using $1.5 million from the city’s gas utility fund. By the afternoon, customers were receiving letters advising them of revised balances due.

“Since the notification of an increase (in) gas prices, staff has been working endlessly to mitigate a solution, including negotiating a fixed rate for a 12-month term,” Mayor Benny Jasso stated in a news release. “As a result, the Natural Gas Relief program was presented to the finance committee and was well received with a unanimous vote of approval.”

In December, the city announced a $20 rebate for most customers after gas prices jumped 73 percent over a month; but by the time it was enacted it no longer made much of a dent in most customers’ bills: Prices had made an even greater month-to-month jump, from $1.30 to $3.30 per unit, as reported by City Administrator Aaron Sera during the Jan. 10 town hall.

“That is damaging,” Sera remarked during the town hall, where he warned residents about the next billing cycle. “If we keep doing that month after month, I’m afraid people are going to die.”

On that date, Sera said the city was negotiating a fixed-price rate with its supplier, Symmetry Energy Solutions, in hope of lowering costs in time for March bills. At a Jan. 17 city council meeting, Sera said the company had until Jan. 31 to sign and was hopeful it would.

City spokesperson Mandi Sanders said Wednesday that the city was mulling further action but did not offer details, saying more would be presented at a public town hall scheduled for Feb. 15.

Hogan did not confirm whether the threats that led to city hall’s closure were connected to outcry over utility bills. In the meantime, the city said its offices remain closed the rest of this week and the utility department would receive payments online or by mail, but not in person at the municipal building. The drive-thru windows where many residents pay their utility bills would remain closed until Monday.


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