January 30, 2023

The city of Deming’s municipal offices were abruptly closed to the public on Wednesday morning in response to threats against city staff after shockingly high utility bills were received for about 6,000 customers buying natural gas through the city.

Deming Police Chief Clint Hogan announced that around 10:42 a.m. an unspecified number of “telephone threats” were targeted at employees and that he had recommended the city building, where the city courthouse and fire department of Deming belong to lock.

“City Hall will remain on hold until the investigation is complete and we are satisfied that the threat has passed,” Hogan said in a release. He declined to give further details, including the number of threats logged, citing the ongoing investigation.

The incident came as the city faltered with a response to a rise in the cost of natural gas it buys from the San Juan Basin in northern New Mexico and Colorado. Although city officials warned at a city hall Jan. 10 that the next round of bills would be “outrageous” after unit prices rose above $3, residents and businesses have reacted in shock after receiving hundreds or even thousands of dollars had. While the city’s bills include municipal water, sewage and garbage disposal charges, gas was the main culprit behind winter bills, which were higher than any in recent memory.

Oly Ortiz, owner of La Fonda restaurant, said the bill for her business exceeded $4,000 and she was fortunate that the place recently closed for a few days. When she called other restaurants near downtown, she learned that most had received $5,000 bills and were desperate about how to stay afloat through the winter.

Ortiz said she had already considered painful cuts, including downsizing, at the restaurant. “I haven’t increased my prices in over a year, and everything is going on,” she said. “I’ll pay $90 for a case of eggs. We fight; we are really, really struggling.”

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

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

The city announced offices would remain closed through Monday morning, as well as an emergency relief program that would see the city eat up 65 percent of those bills.

The city reported that prices are currently $3.72 for residential and $3.73 for commercial services, and said it would absorb $2.42 per unit, using $1.5 million from the city’s gas utility fund . In the afternoon, customers received letters informing them that the corrected balances were due.

“Since the notification of a gas price hike, staff have worked endlessly to find a solution, including negotiating a fixed rate for a 12-month term,” Mayor Benny Jasso said in a press release. “As a result, the Natural Gas Relief program was presented to the Finance Committee and was well received with unanimous approval.”

In December, the city announced a $20 rebate for all customers after gas prices rose 73 percent in a month; But by the time it went into effect, it wasn’t putting much of a strain on most customers’ bills: Prices had jumped even bigger month-on-month, from $1.30 to $3.30 per unit, according to city manager Aaron Sera during a reported Jan. 10 City Hall Downtown “It’s harmful,” Sera noted during City Hall, where he warned residents about the next fiscal cycle. “If we keep doing this month after month, I’m afraid people will die.”

On that day, Sera said the city was negotiating a fixed rate with its supplier Symmetry Energy Solutions in hopes of lowering the cost in time for bills in March. At a City Council meeting on Jan. 17, Sera said the company had until Jan. 31 to sign and he was confident they would.

City spokeswoman Mandi Sanders said Wednesday that the city was considering further action but offered no details, saying more would be unveiled at a public town hall scheduled for February 15.

Hogan did not confirm whether the threats that led to the closure of City Hall were related to the outcry over utility bills. Meanwhile, the city said its offices would remain closed for the rest of this week and the utility department would receive payments online or in the mail, but not in person at the municipal building. The drive-through windows, where many residents pay their utility bills, would remain closed through Monday.

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at [email protected]

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