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PNM blamed for water-billing errors
By JONATHAN McDONALD/The New Mexican10/3/2000
City councilors serving on Santa Fe's Finance Committee Monday called for an auditor to investigate the finances of the city-owned Sangre de Cristo water company, whose staff has been unable to say if it is operating at a profit or a loss.
City staff told councilors they have been unable to provide an accurate picture of water-company finances because Public Service Company of New Mexico - which operates the water system under a contract with the city - hasn't provided accurate financial information since January.
"I've never trusted PNM," said City Councilor Frank Montaqo, who called for the outside audit of the water company's finances. Councilor Cris Moore joined Montaqo in expressing a lack of trust for PNM and accused it of being "a monopoly."
Julie Gray, a spokeswoman for PNM in Albuquerque, was unable to comment on the allegations after business hours Monday. She promised to address the city's questions today.
The councilors said they were dismayed that the water company has known about problems with PNM's operation of the utility since January and only now brought it to the attention of the council.
Councilor Carol Robertson Lopez said the City Council feels like information about the problems had been hidden from it.
Public Works Director Dennis Gee and Bill Landin, who oversees the water utility, were both unable to say how much money PNM receives for operating the water company. Gee said it would be safe to say "several hundred thousand" dollars went to PNM last year.
The water utility's financial records, recently provided to the city, are either "incorrect or unsubstantiated by proper documentation," according to a letter sent to the company by City Attorney Peter Dwyer on Monday.
The letter is addressed to Avistar, which is described as the subsidiary of PNM that used to be its water division. The letter was also sent to three PNM officials, including CEO Jeff Sterba.
City Manager Frank Di Luzio said staff was "just not comfortable" with the financial figures PNM provided to the city about the fiscal state of the water utility. Di Luzio did not say whether the numbers that were provided show if the water company is in the red or the black.
"We're just not comfortable with their accuracy," Di Luzio said, "they might be erroneous."
Landin and Gee also declined to say what the numbers show, though they promised to give councilors a presentation on the water-company finances later this month.
Until problems are fixed, Councilor Patti Bushee said payments to Avistar should stop. She also questioned whether the city of Santa Fe, poised to fully take over the water utility next summer, is ready for the job.
Councilor Karen Heldmeyer agreed, saying she was "not optimistic at this point," about city staff's ability to run the water utility.
The water-billing fiasco began after an attempt to upgrade the billing systems in preparation for the anticipated Y2K-related computer failures. The new system didn't function properly, and while bugs were being worked out, the city hired a new company to read water meters.
Landin said PNM, not city staff, controls the billing system, though it's been city employees who have taken the brunt of criticism to date.
Bushee said PNM manages to get accurate bills out for their electric and natural-gas divisions and suggested responsibility for the city's bills be shifted to another part of PNM.
Councilors also called for city lawyers to determine if PNM can be held financially liable for any problems.
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