BERNALILLO — Sandoval County’s interim Fire Chief Eric Masterson is in the process of changing an agreement that has revealed the Village of Cuba to be delinquent on its dispatch bill.
Masterson said the joint powers agreement (JPA) didn’t sit well with him when he was deputy chief, and now that he is in the interim chief position, he is looking into making changes.
“A lot of the costs on this (JPA) come from the law-enforcement side,” he said. “The fire and EMS (emergency medical services) components are actually relatively minimal compared to the law-enforcement costs … that’s where we are having issues.”
For example, Masterson said the county contributes to Jemez Pueblo’s EMS so it will help cover calls in the county. However, he said Jemez Pueblo’s police department serves only the pueblo.
“(The county) offsets the police department costs by $25,000 to $50,000.” Masterson said. “They only contribute a very small portion of their dispatch fees, and the county subsidizes the rest of it. Their law enforcement is not going into the county.”
Masterson verified that Jemez Pueblo is current on its dispatch bill by virtue of a memorandum of understanding from a previous county commission that only requires the pueblo to pay $25,000 of its costs.
However, Masterson said the Village of Cuba hasn’t paid its bill.
“We are in discussions with them, trying to understand and come up with data to help price this out based on a call-volume basis,” he said.
“We understand the value of the fire and EMS component, but their law enforcement isn’t going into the county,” he continued. “There could be a car accident on (US) 550 three miles outside of the village and they’re saying, ‘We’re not going.'”
Masterson said this increases dispatch fees for the county, since the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office has to respond to those accidents.
“For an hour-long response, we are being charged for every minute we are out there,” he said.
Masterson said the county also has $250,000 worth of expenses for the radio system, in addition to paying for the dispatch fees for areas overdue on their bill.
“So when the Village of Cuba says, ‘We’re not going to pay the $55,000,’ it’s probably higher than that based on usage,” he said. “That’s where we are struggling right now: trying to figure out if we need to ask the taxpayers in the other municipalities and unincorporated areas to offset that cost.”
Richard Velarde, Cuba mayor, said when his first responders go to a call outside of the city limits, it ends up costing the village.
“So whenever they travel outside of city limits, we are still being billed for that,” Velarde said. “I’m saying give me a definitive number as far as how much of that time we are out of our area helping take care of the county’s calls.”
Velarde said if Cuba is helping Sandoval County with its calls, which causes wear and tear on the village’s vehicles and thins out emergency personnel, why not give the village a financial break?
“We’ve never billed the county for helping them out with our services; instead I’m sent a bill for dispatch time,” he said.
Velarde said he suggested last year that the county use “payment in lieu of taxes” funds, which come from agreements with private entities and can be used for EMS, fire and police services.
“It’s free money to the county, and I suggested it be used to pay our $60,000 tab,” he said. “Last I checked, there was $2.4 million in that fund; or give us our own tower and we can be on our own.”
Velarde said he is waiting on air-time cost documentation for his police and fire departments from the county.
Masterson said based on a 2015 JPA, the county is responsible for paying 34 percent of the Sandoval County Regional Emergency Communications Center operations cost, whether outliers like the Village of Cuba pay or not.
“The county and the taxpayers get stuck with paying the extra so we can meet our agreement,” he said. “I’ve already expressed interest to the dispatch board that we need to re-visit this this year.”
Masterson said he found some communities weren’t even aware there was a dispatch bill.
“Santo Domingo (Pueblo) is a great example,” he said. “We have historically just paid it. They’ve never even been informed that there’s a dispatch cost associated with them; they’ve never known.”
Sandoval County Manager Dianne Maes said the county just wants to engage in a conversation to remedy any misunderstandings that may have happened because of how things have been run in the past.
“This is one of several issues that I am elevating to the commission level because these areas are unaware,” she said. “These are the kinds of things we’ve inherited that may still work after we fix some of the kinks.”
Maes said the county is addressing these issues to be efficient and run things as smoothly as possible.