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Local
Intense winds hit Chaves County

Heavy winds battered Chaves County and much of eastern and central New Mexico Sunday, causing power outages, hazardous driving conditions and property damage.

Annette Mokry, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said wind gusts reached up to 84 miles per hour at both the Roswell Air Center and in Dexter Sunday afternoon. Dunken, in the boot heel region, faced gusts of up to 77 miles per hour.

No fatalities or serious injuries were reported, but dust severely limited visibility for motorists. Undersheriff Charles Yslas said the number of accidents on the roadways was so high, that an additional three deputies had to be called into work to respond to incidents.

“Our biggest concern was the motor vehicles that would stop on the roadway due to non-visibility and then be struck by moving vehicles,” Yslas said. He added one vehicle traveling on Highway 82 and pulling a camper trailer had the trailer ripped from it. The trailer was then tossed into the air before landing on the side of the road.

Areas of U.S. 380, along with U.S. 285 south and State Road 2, were the subject of numerous reported damages and accidents. Because of the brownout situations fostered by the blowing dirt, roads were closed sporadically and then reopened to traffic. One of those included State Road 2, from East McGaffey St. down to Artesia, after an electric pole was downed.

Yslas said about four power poles had snapped in half. Downed limbs and uprooted trees also littered the landscape, some falling on vehicles.

“We have a lot of trees that have been destroyed and have broken and they are laying in the roadway. Most of them have been pulled off to the side of the roadway by law enforcement and things like that,” Yslas said.

Roofs were also torn off several buildings and fences were damaged throughout the county, though Yslas said he had not received reports of livestock that had gone missing.

Xcel Energy had to cope with an estimated 72,000 customers in the New Mexico-Texas area who were plunged into darkness because of the wind's fury. Some 500 crew members, including employee crews from Colorado and Oklahoma, were sent out to make needed repairs. Some 50 poles and cross arms were destroyed.

As of press time Monday, Xcel Energy still had 1500 customers without power, including 300 in New Mexico, 600 in the Texas Panhandle and another 600 in the South Plains Region of Texas near Lubbock, Wes Reeves, senior media representative for Xcel Energy of Texas and New Mexico, said.

Some of the repercussions of that were felt in and around Roswell included one interrupted power service Sunday at 12:36 p.m. when a tree went through a line fed by the Roswell City Substation, interrupting service to 4,091 customers. Service was restored to all those impacted by 3:50 p.m.

Another 1,537 customers in south Roswell were left in the dark after 1:33 p.m. when three poles near the air center broke. Power was restored to all but one local customer by late Monday afternoon.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, breakingnews@rdrnews.com or on Twitter at @alexrosstweets.


Local
Ban on guns at polling places passes House committee

Legislation to prohibit firearms within 100 feet of polling places in New Mexico cleared its first committee in the New Mexico House of Representatives Monday.

Members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted 4 to 3 to forward Senate Bill 44 out of committee. All four Democrats at the hearing moved to advance the bill, while all three Republican committee members opposed doing so. On Feb. 22, the bill passed the Senate 28-9.

The bill's sponsor Senate Majority Leader Tim Wirth (D-Santa Fe) said the proposal was inspired by discussions he had with several poll workers in his district concerned about armed individuals at voting locations.

“Guns and elections don't mix,” Wirth said. Exceptions are included in the bill for law enforcement officers who provide security at polling places. Violation of the law would constitute a petty misdemeanor punishable by a prison term of up to six years.

In his presentation, Wirth noted firearms are already not allowed within 100 feet of voting locations that are inside schools.

“All this bill does is extend that to the rest of polling places,” he explained.

Backers of the legislation call the bill a commonsense measure designed to ensure public safety at elections sites during a time of mass shootings and widening polarization.

“During this time when we are seeing such a rise in political violence, including sadly right here in New Mexico, we believe that this bills and others like it are important additions to maintain the security and safety of elections,” Shannon Kunkel, outreach and development coordinator for Common Cause New Mexico, told the committee.

Critics questioned why the bill is needed. Michael Pierson, who told the committee he has voted in every election in New Mexico since 1972, said he believes it is unnecessary.

“I never heard anyone, anywhere at anytime explain in anyway whatsoever that there is any issue with firearms in the vicinity of any voting location ever,” he said.

Pierson and others expressed worry lawful gun owners who are on sidewalks, in parking lots, inside vehicles or adjacent businesses while armed would be considered in violation of the law.

“I could walk into the Dollar Store and be within this distance of a polling place,” Michael Pierson said when speaking against the bill during the public comment period.

As far as people being intimidated by armed persons, opponents of the bill argue a concealed carry licensee who openly displayed a gun would already be in violation of current state law.

State Rep. William Rehm (R-Albuquerque), a member of the committee, put forth an amendment to exempt concealed carry licensees from the restrictions. It was rejected in a 4 to 3 vote.

Rehm noted in his hometown most polling places are inside malls and the law could have unintended consequences for retailers near voting locations who sell firearms.

Senate Bill 44 will next be taken up in the House Judiciary Committee.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, breakingnews@rdrnews.com or on Twitter at @alexrosstweets.


Local
Library considers waiving late fees, to a point
The Roswell Public Library has proposed eliminating fines for overdue items and re-categorizing items that are very late as lost. If enacted, the focus will be on recouping costs when library users don't attempt to return a book or some other material by adding a significant new fee if those overdue items aren't returned within several weeks and in good condition. 
 
“We want the community to use the Roswell Public Library, but we want our materials back,” said Enid Costley, library director.
 
For each item that’s overdue for 49 days, there would also be a $25 processing fee payment required. This would occur when overdue materials are reclassified as items "not returned." The amount of time until an item would be regarded as having been not returned is currently 92 days.
 
The theory is that this change would further encourage the return of library materials before that amount of time goes by.
 
The idea to stop charging overdue fines would improve the relationship between library staff and people who use the library — especially people who can least afford to pay fines, Costley said to members of the city’s General Services Committee.
 
It costs more for library staff to process the fee than it recoups. The fine is now 20 cents per day for overdue materials, with a maximum total fine of $12, according to the staff report.
 
From July to October 2022, the library collected $1,709.63. Costley explained that the amount comes from children paying partial fines by handing library staff “their dimes and pennies.”
 
The annual total collected was about $3,000.
 
The library spends between $15 and $16 for each overdue material. Employees send overdue notices to the borrower after an email goes out to remind them their due date is coming in three days.
 
Costs to remind borrowers that they need to return overdue items come from printing the subsequent late notices once the due date has passed, mailing costs and related staff time as well as workers having to record, then later remove, fines once they are paid, Costley explained.
 
“I understand money does not grow on trees,” she said. “But let’s not spend dollars to collect dimes.”
 
There’s no research indicating that library users having to pay overdue fines are more likely to return the items they borrow any faster, or that assessing overdue fines encourages responsibility, Costley also pointed out.
 
Doing away with overdue fines and shifting to a processing fee aren't the only changes put forward in the library’s fines and fees policy revision.
 
Also proposed is to begin curtailing a user’s borrowing privileges when they have something out that is 28 days overdue. And there would be a change in the notification process that informs library users that they have something from the library that’s overdue so it coincides with the 49-day date for material to be considered as not returned.
 
Further, people who borrow Hobby Kits and return them with one or more items missing will be asked to pay for the original cost or replacement of each item.
 
Interests reflected in such kits include astronomy, calligraphy, chess and knitting. Each type of kit has a book about the hobby and some items related to that particular pastime.
 
And to help make up for the money that would no longer be coming to the library from collecting overdue fees, the library will increase what it charges for printing and copying documents, specifically 25 cents per page, Costley said.
 
The Friends of the Roswell Public Library pays for students’ use of print and copy services, she stressed.
 
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Committee Chair Juan Oropesa about the proposal. “Especially for our kids.”
 
There are currently 14 libraries in New Mexico that don’t seek fines for overdue materials as long as they are returned in good condition, such as in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Carlsbad and Rio Rancho, Costley said.
 
Research indicates that no longer charging the fines would result in an increase in use of the library. Large cities have been moving toward this practice in recent years, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles County.
 
The New York Public Library System reported that often their poorest library users were blocked from using the service because they couldn’t pay the overdue fines. And when Chicago stopped charging overdue fees, its libraries had hundreds of overdue books returned, according to CNN and the New York Times, respectively.
 
With the General Services Committee's recommendation of the proposal and its legal review complete, it will be referred to the Finance Committee for review, then to the city council for final actions.
 
Reporter Terri Harber can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 308, or at reporter03@rdrnews.com.

Local
Convention center changes under consideration once again

City leaders are considering ways to reorganize the downtown Roswell Convention Center operations again, with the intent of reducing costs and easing staffing problems.

Interim City Manager Mike Mathews presented a couple of options during a Roswell City Council Legal Committee meeting Thursday at City Hall as a starting point for discussions. Formal action is expected at later meetings.

“They are both identical,” Mathews said about the concepts presented. “The question is whether or not we utilize our liquor license.”

Under Option 1, the one Mathews said he preferred and had decided by the end of the meeting to develop further, the city would coordinate liquor service only for groups of 200 or less. The option he did not favor would have the city still operating bars and providing liquor service for groups that contract for that, regardless of the size of the event.

Under Option 1, larger groups that want liquor services would have to work with outside companies and would have to obtain a picnic license for liquor service at the Convention Center at 912 N. Main St. far enough in advance of the event that the city could get state permission to suspend its license for that time period.

He said he came up with the cap on the number of people by talking with staff, who he said told him they could handle service for up to 200. People most likely can find less expensive options using outside companies, he said, explaining that the Convention Center charges “more than any other bars do.”

He said staffing issues are part of the difficulties.

“Just my opinion, our employees have been put in a very bad situation because we never could find enough employees to do a banquet for 500 people and really serve them and do what they trained for,” Mathews said. “So I want to get out of that business and provide a very high-quality facility and let our restaurants and things like that provide good, quality food for them.”

The Convention Center will honor any existing contracts that include liquor or food service, Mathews said.

Mathews also said an acting manager for the Convention Center will be named soon, with a final decision about that position to be made after a new city manager is appointed. The mayor announced Friday his choice of Chad Cole, assistant superintendent for finance and operations for the Roswell Independent School District, for the city's top administrative leadership role. The decision must be ratified by the Roswell City Council, an action expected during the group's next meeting on March 9.

The decision to end food service and limit liquor service is a reversal of what city staff chose after the Roswell Convention Center reopened in November 2021. It had closed in April 2021 when the pandemic slowed event bookings. The city decided not to renew its management contract with an outside company at that time, bringing management for the Convention Center back in-house. The consultant had reported that the city had lost out in about $244,000 in revenues during 2020 and 2021 because of canceled or postponed bookings. After the city reopened the Convention Center, it hired a culinary team and began coordinating food and beverage service for groups choosing those options.

Legal Committee Chair Ed Heldenbrand said that employees had been “set up for maybe failure” with too few staff members. He also said having food service in-house was not paying off.

“We also know by looking at the numbers, it didn't make sense for the city to be in there. We were losing money on that operation and not covering costs,” Heldenbrand said.

During a Feb. 13 Finance Committee meeting, city councilors heard from city staff that the Convention Center had already expended 63.33% of its budget by December 31, with six months left in the fiscal year. Revenues from the city's bed fees, charged to all lodging establishments in the city for each night a person stays in a room, was characterized as having a net loss of $137,260, considering total revenues of $353,184 and expenses of $490,444 by Dec. 31. The Convention Center also receives a portion of lodgers' tax collected by the city, which finance personnel estimated at having an available balance of $77,000 after expenses and open purchase orders. Finance personnel indicated that food and beverage operations had resulted in about $300,000 in operational losses in the first half of the fiscal year, with about $112,567 being food and beverage supplies.

While the city is looking to cut losses, Mathews said the Convention Center shouldn't be expected to ever operate as a profit center.

“It is a good community facility,” he said. “It should be available to our community at a reasonable rate, and get more and more people in there to utilize it and show it off and keep it full.”

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or reporter02@rdrnews.com.


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