Friday, February 11, 2011

FEMA Team: We're here to support New Mexico

An emergency disaster assessment team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Regional office in Denton, Texas began working in New Mexico on Friday afternoon.

“We’re here to support New Mexico,” FEMA's spokesman Brad Craine told reporters who toured several damaged buildings with the team in downtown Albuquerque.

"The whole reason of coming in and doing a preliminary damage assessment is to simply find out just how much damage was done to the infrastructure," Craine said.

They found heavy industrial heater fans still churning inside the Bernalillo County District Court seven days after water caused damage to walls and carpet.

Across the street at the District Attorney's office, the team heard stories from employees who used personal hair dryers to recover documents ahead of trials and hearings on Monday.

“We literally walked across the street to District Court in some cases with wet, dripping papers that we needed to file” DA Spokesman Pat Davis said. No cases were affected by the flooding and resulting water damage according to Davis.

FEMA's team will focus primarily on publicly owned buildings and infrastructure in counties affected by the severe arctic weather that moved across the state last week causing water pipes to rupture and natural gas to stop flowing to thousands of customers. Craine said individuals and private businesses will have to prove significant losses before they can get relief from FEMA.

He encouraged them to work with their insurance companies and file expedited claims with the New Mexico Gas Company.

After their work on the ground, the team will file their findings with Gov. Susana Martinez, who can then request a declaration. Only then will recommendations for assistance be made to the White House, where President Obama will make the final determination on what financial aid will be given to the state.

On Saturday, the FEMA team will head north to Santa Fe, Espanola, Taos and Questa.

Insurance Companies Warned

New Mexico State Insurance Superintendent John Franchini has issued a directive to all insurance companies warning them not to cancel, refuse to renew, or raise customer policies.

Current statutes forbid them to make any changes following a natural disaster.

“We are advising all insurance companies that we do not expect policyholders to receive any type of premium increase due to claims filed as the result of the severe winter weather or natural gas outages,” Franchini said. “We will personally review any premium or rate increase a New Mexico policyholder sustains to ensure that the increase is fair, not based upon a natural disaster claim and conforms to current State regulations and guidelines.

Individual Claims

While the gas company is processing individual claims, state and federal agencies are still determining how to assist employees who lost wages and businesses who lost sales after having to temporarily shut down.

Many of the assistance programs previously in place, outside of the funds established by New Mexico Gas Company, are programs that have income or amount-of-loss thresholds.

For instance, State of New Mexico Human Services Department has LIHEAP, can often help with heating issues based on an income threshold. Information here.

The Small Business Administration has programs to assist merchants.

In order to qualify for FEMA assistance the team will have to determine more than $2.4 million in losses was incurred statewide before New Mexico can receive recovery reimbursements.

Some state funding has been allocated to the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA) to help income-qualifying customers with these needed repairs on their natural gas-burning appliances, as well as with weatherization services. Assistance applications are available online.

Terry Brunner, USDA Representative, said grants and low interest housing and business loans may be available for home repair and upgrades, but will depend on income levels.

Water utilities assistance is available to repair broken water lines.

Grants are available to repair or upgrade community buildings or services.

The Rural Energy Program offers rebates for energy efficiency upgrades. USDA also offers assistance in cases of crop and livestock weather-related losses.

Frank Padilla, a Housing and Urban Development representative said a total of $200,000 has been made available for immediate assistance for emergency repairs, but must be distributed through local government. And, vouchers are available for residents of uninhabitable homes to stay at a motel for up to 3 weeks.

There is a home program for more extensive repairs through the Mortgage Finance Authority and the NM Energy Smart program can provide assessments and energy efficient upgrade rebates.

The Small Business Administration reported it is only offering its normal services, but continue to assess the situation in New Mexico.

New Mexico Gas Company claims can me made online here.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

PRC wants independent investigation

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission decided it wants an independent third-party to investigate last week’s natural gas supply interruption to over 40,000 New Mexico Gas Company customers.

The PRC, at the urging of several commissioners, directed its Acting Chief of Staff to prepare an agreement providing for the retention of an independent third party to investigate and file a report with the Commission regarding the cause of the service disruption.

Commissioners say they want their investigation to focus on what happened and how to prevent future gas delivery failures. They also want the investigator to examine whether New Mexico Gas Company's response to the situation was appropriate, such as whether NMGC’s decisions regarding which customers should be curtailed and for how long, and what steps can be taken to ensure that such a situation does not occur again in the future.

PRC Chairman Pat Lyons said that having an independent entity conduct the investigation protect the public’s interest.

“We believe that in order for us to get the most comprehensive and objective information possible, an outside source must be contracted,” Chairman Lyons said. “The Commission will, of course, consider the views of NMGC, Commission Staff, the Attorney General and other interested parties before coming to any decisions. There were far too many people adversely affected by this situation and we want to ensure that New Mexicans never have to endure this kind of hardship again.”

Lyons’ desire to hire an independent investigator was largely endorsed by his Commission colleagues who approved the measure. An NMGC representative who attended Tuesday’s meeting said he agreed that an independent investigation would be prudent.

The Commission expects to finalize its order early next week, thus commencing the investigation process.

The PRC’s Pipeline Safety Bureau and its Utility Division will assist in the investigation.

“We want this done promptly, but we also want to make sure that it’s done thoroughly,” Chairman Lyons added. “New Mexico’s citizens deserve nothing less.”

Several taxpayers say the PRC is already independent of the legislature and executive branches and that they believe it's the commissioners job to do the investigation.

One person we talked to said, "That's what what we pay the PRC members to do."

The final structure and format of the investigation will be determined by the Commission at its Feb. 15 meeting.

From a news release.

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AG King issues opinion on HOA Solar Panel Rules

Homeowners who want to install solar panels on their homes, regulated by HOV covenants, are lining up in support of Rep. Mimi Stewart's HB-9, which would prohibit cities from restricting their use.

And, a legal opinion issued today by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King could also help.

King's opinion clarifies a 2007 state law allowing homeowners associations to regulate the installation or use of solar panels-- so long as the regulations do not “effectively prohibit” their installation or use.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring the 2011 Home Owners Association Act, asked the AG's office for an official opinion on whether or not a homeowners association can require that members seek its approval before installing solar panels?

King's opinion allows homeowners associations to continue to require homeowners to obtain the prior approval of the associations before placing solar collectors on rooftops as long as restrictions on the installation, or use of solar panels, does not make installations unreasonably difficult or costly.

If approved,, Stewart's HB9 would not allow any municipality to restrict the installation of a solar collector as defined pursuant to the Solar Rights Act, except that placement of solar collectors in historic districts.

The AG has posted the full opinion online.

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Martinez okays $750K for recovery

After receiving disaster declarations from 13 local governments, Governor Susana Martinez signed an executive order on Wednesday night releasing up to $750,000 in state emergency funds for costs incurred during the statewide natural gas crisis.

“In order to facilitate the quickest possible recovery and reimbursement process for local governments, we have been responding to their requests and working with FEMA from day one to evaluate damages and follow necessary steps to make state and federal funds available," Governor Martinez said in a news release.

With the gas restored to most residents and businesses, the governor said her team is now focused on providing aid to local communities and preventing future outages.

Damage assessment teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began arriving in New Mexico yesterday to conduct a detailed accounting of the uninsured costs incurred by state and local entities including the extent of business losses, infrastructure damages, deployment of response resources, and impact on critical facilities.

Those teams efforts will aid work already being done by another FEMA representative, who has been in place at the State Emergency Operation Center in Santa Fe since Monday.

The Martinez Administration said it has been in contact with FEMA since the first day of the natural gas crisis, and the Governor anticipates that damages will rise to the level of a Presidential Disaster Declaration.

At that point FEMA will be authorized to reimburse state and local entities for costs associated with uninsured damages and response efforts during the state of emergency.

The governor’s office Thursday morning that 50+ National Guard troops remain in each of the communities of Taos and Espanola to continue their work with technicians to restore heat to homes where owners have been repeatedly found not to be home; crews are also helping with recovery efforts and safety checks throughout Taos and Espanola neighborhoods.

At least five other local governments are expected to file additional declarations.

Individuals may file a claim directly with the New Mexico Natural Gas Company online. Officials with the company said they have set up an expedited claim process.

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Palm printing in the hands of the senate

Sen. Sander Rue
Embracing new crime fighting technology, Sen. Sander Rue, R-Rio Rancho is sponsoring a measure requested by law enforcement agencies to help them catch and arrest more criminals.

SB 102, which has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, requires anyone who is arrested to submit to having their palm print impression recorded in addition to being fingerprinted during jail booking.

“Everyone seems to be fascinated with Criminal Scene Investigations (CSI) that use the latest and greatest to solve crimes,” Sen. Rue said. “Let’s use more of it to solve crimes in New Mexico.”

The bill requires anyone arrested to have their palm print impressions taken in addition to being fingerprinted when they are booked into jail.

“By using the latest technology at crime scenes, a lot of good palm prints can be lifted while only partial fingerprints might be detected and might not be readable,” Senator Rue said. “This bill requires that palm prints are also taken at the time of booking an alleged criminal so they can be stored digitally and used to crack more crimes. Having digital palm prints on file increases the odds of tying a particular person to the crime scene.”

Since the digital palm prints would remain on file, along with the booking sheet, they can be used to match against latent or hidden prints left at crime scenes, thus giving investigators an increased chance of matching ‘latent’ against existing digital fingerprint/palm print files.

The legislation seeks to amends 29-3-8 NMSA 1978 to add palm printing to the fingerprinting process conducted by law enforcement agencies as a part of a booking subsequent to a felony arrest. The bill adds “palm print” or “palm printing” to every mention of fingerprint or fingerprinting in 29-3-8 NMSA 1978.

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) indicates that the requirement of palm printing in addition to fingerprinting in association with arrests is a trend throughout the country and simply requires that a palm print impression of each hand be added to the 10-print fingerprinting process.

Senator Rue said because DPS is now gathering and storing palm prints, DPS processes will not change. Many law enforcement agencies are already collecting palm prints so impact on law enforcement should be minimal since palm printing as an adjunct to fingerprinting takes very little time, and requires less expertise than fingerprinting.”

Source: Senate Leadership office

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NM Gas Company provides online claim forms after gas shortage

A day after the New Mexico Gas Company announced a one million dollar fund to assist customers with claims as a result of the gas shortage, it's now providing customer's details for its expedited claims process.

The company has posted an online form for customers to file claims in English and Spanish.

There are several ways customers can file a claim:

· Online at customers can fill out a claims form and submit it directly from the Web site.

· Customers may print the form, fill it out and fax or mail it to the New Mexico Gas Company Claims Department.

· Call the customer service number at 1-888-664-2726.

Once a claim is filed online or on the phone with a customer service representative, customers will immediately receive a claim number. Customer service will call customers with a claim number if they file through the mail or via fax.

To file a claim, customers must provide their New Mexico Gas Company account number and insurance information, including their insurance policy number.

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State Auditor Announces Educational Accountability and Anti-Corruption Legislation

Hector Balderas
On Wednesday, State Auditor Hector Balderas announced a comprehensive anti-corruption legislation package, which includes six bills he says will enhance his office's ability to protect New Mexico taxpayers from financial fraud, waste, and abuse in government.

He campaigned in 2010 on the premise that all public monies have to be accounted for at every level of government including education.

“The Jemez Mountain Schools embezzlement case in 2009 demonstrated that every effort must be made to hold public schools accountable," said Baleras in a news release. "Sen. [Cynthia] Nava’s bill provides my office more auditors to review our schools’ finances and keep more money in our classrooms.”

Sen. Cynthia Nava
Senate Education Chairwoman Senator Cynthia Nava has asked for the state's Public Education Department to transfer their inspector general and auditor positions to Baleras' office.

The six bills introduced today include:

· SB 423, sponsored by Senator Cynthia Nava: This bill transfers positions from the Public Education Department’s (PED) Inspector General to the Office of the State Auditor (OSA). During the 2010 interim, the Legislative Education Study Committee endorsed the transfer of these positions to the OSA to provide further audit oversight of both public schools and institutions of higher education.

· HB 424, sponsored by Rep. Mimi Stewart: This bill would make the State Auditor’s successful “At Risk Program” a statutory requirement. The program designates government agencies “at risk for fraud, waste, and abuse” if they fail to submit timely audits. The bill also requires that an agency be designated at-risk for fraud, waste and abuse if it receives a disclaimer of opinion or an adverse opinion on its annual financial audit.

· HB 411, sponsored by Rep. Luciano Varela: This bill requires notifications to the Secretary of Finance and Administration if a state agency, state institution, or municipality fails to submit timely audits or financial reports.

· HB 416, sponsored by Rep. Al Park: This bill makes it a crime to intentionally deceive, mislead or obstruct an audit, special audit, examination or investigation conducted by the State Auditor. The bill makes the crime a misdemeanor and also provides for civil penalties.

· HB 439, sponsored by Rep. Cynthia Nava: This bill provides that money or property obtained as a result of an embezzlement committed against a New Mexico school district or public school is subject to forfeiture.

· HB 425, sponsored by Rep. Mimi Stewart: This bill appropriates $200,000 to pay salaries and expenses of the State Auditor. This bill will help sustain audit resources that have been impacted by severe budget cuts to the OSA.

Government Scorecard

A listing of New Mexico governmental agencies determined to be at risk because their financial & compliance audits have not been completed and submitted. The list is updated periodically; the date of the occurrence is at the bottom of this document.

At Risk/ Non-Responsive Designations

A listing of New Mexico governmental agencies determined to be at risk that did not respond to the OSA's November 2, 2009 deadline to submit a status report. As of the date specified no status reports have been submitted by for these agencies. (Click here to open document)

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Feds schedule forum to discuss NM storm assistance with residents and businesses

Northern New Mexico residents and businesses affected by last week’s storm and gas outages will get a chance tomorrow to meet with federal agencies in Española tomorrow.

A variety of federal agencies and New Mexico nonprofits, including the Agriculture Departments Rural Development and Farm Services agencies, Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, and Housing Assistance Council, will offer assistance and discuss assistance available to eligible New Mexicans whose homes and businesses were affected by last week’s storm.

The New Mexico congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency is sponsoring the forum on Thursday at 10am at the Mission Museum (1 Calle de los Españoles, Española).

Governor Susana Martinez has said her Homeland Security Department is requesting assistance from FEMA, but details of what the agency can provide is still uncertain, because this week's state of emergency was not cause by an act of god--instead by rolling electrical blackouts in Texas, which caused gas outages across much of the state.

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Skandera Announces PED Advisory Team

On Wednesday afternoon, New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera announced she's selected a team of education experts to help her roll out new state policies and manage administrative issues.

Skandera says the team will bring a "wealth of education experience" and provide the state necessary cost savings during a hiring freeze.

Announcing the team in a news release, Skandera said the provides "an alternative to the immediate hiring of many of the Department’s exempt positions, resulting in a cost-savings to the State of New Mexico and more time to recruit exceptional full-time talent."

During the campaign, Gov. Susana Martinez made improving education in New Mexico a top priority and said she's committed to ensuring every student has access to quality schools and teachers. In her State of the State speech in Santa Fe last month, Martinez announced a "Kids First, New Mexico Wins plan."

While legislators continue to debate the 2012 budget proposals, Martinez continues to push her plan, which she has said will put 65 cents of every budget dollar into the classroom. She says districts need to cut more administrative costs.

Martinez has told reporters that her plan will increase accountability and transparency in education, end social promotion, help districts allocate resources to key targets, and identify and reward effective educators and leaders.

New members of the Public Education Department Advisory team are Catherine Freeman, Christy Hovanetz, Jay Pfeiffer, David Saba, Jeff Sellers, John Bailey, Terrell Halaska, Kristy Campbell, and Chad Colby.

We posted their individual backgrounds here.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Martinez dispatches more guardsmen to assist gas company

Late Monday afternoon, ahead of an approaching storm, and with snow falling in parts of Northern New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez announced that she is sending additional National Guard troops and police officers to the communities of Taos and Espanola to expedite the process of restoring natural gas and that the crews will work throughout the night in both communities.

She also announced that firefighters from Albuquerque are on stand-by and if necessary will be dispatched tomorrow morning.

These additional personnel will receive training in order to turn gas meters back on, as well as clear debris and other items from around meters and furnaces. They will be paired with a technician or plumber who is licensed to re-light appliances and heaters.

“Gas company officials personally assured me they would complete their work by Sunday night and repeatedly declined our offers to provide additional resources, such as National Guard troops,” Governor Martinez stated. “It is unacceptable that so many are still without power in Taos and Espanola and that’s why we are mobilizing additional personnel to expedite the process and ensure New Mexicans are not going without heat.

Martinez says she and her administration are prepared to "work around the clock until the job is done.”

“I’m very proud of local law enforcement and our National Guard, and I appreciate the willingness of the Albuquerque Police and Fire Departments to step up and assist their fellow New Mexicans,” added Martinez.

Crews will need the public’s cooperation in restraining pets and clearing space around appliances, meters, and furnaces. Residents in Taos and Espanola who have not yet had their natural gas restored are also encouraged to leave their porch light on throughout the night.

The additional National Guard troops, Emergency Response units, and State Police will be meeting throughout the afternoon and early evening at the National Guard Armory in Espanola.

The breakdown of additional personnel ordered to the area by Martinez is as follows:

  • 300 National Guard soldiers and airmen, in addition to the 56 currently deployed
  • 44 Albuquerque Police Department Emergency Response Unit Members
  • 15 State Police officers

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U.S. Rep. Lujan urges Martinez to request FEMA assistance

After last week's gas outages in New Mexico, U.S. Rep. Ben Lujan, Jr is urging Gov. Susana Martinez to quickly request assistance from FEMA's Region Six. He says federal money may be able to assist individuals and small businesses.

Lujan, who spent the weekend touring his hard hit congressional district, says he saw elderly people shivering in their homes -- in Northern Taos County -- without heat waiting for crews to relight their furnaces.

At a VFW Post in Questa, he talked to veterans about their concerns regarding frozen water pipes.

Lujan told us Martinez’ State of Emergency declaration doesn’t go far enough and he's urging her administration to ask for federal aid now.

He spent the morning in the New Mexico House Energy and Natural Resources committee listening to testimony from New Mexico and El Paso Corp. officials and Martinez’ Homeland Security Secretary designate Michael Duvall and Martinez Chief of Staff Keith Gardner.

Duvall says the state is still assessing whether it has met the monetary threshold needed to request FEMA assistance.

Gardner said the administration's first priority is getting every furnace relighted and getting the New Mexico National Guard into the field to assist technicians.

Gas utility officials told committee members they cut off service to portions of New Mexico last week because they feared of losing control over their distribution system and having uncontrolled outages across the state.

New Mexico Gas Co. Vice President Ken Oostman said customers in northern New Mexico and parts of southern New Mexico were cut off when the utility faced a rapid drop in gas pressure in its lines.

Without that, he told lawmakers, pressure would have continued to drop and uncontrolled outages would have happened in homes and businesses.

Shortly after the cutoff, Martinez declared Taos County, Santa Clara Indian Pueblo and Taos Pueblo have all officially declared a State of Emergency due to the disruption in natural gas service in Northern New Mexico that occurred on February 3, 2011.

Lujan, Jr., said FEMA can provide mobile telecommunications, operational support, life support, and power generation assets allowing on-site management of disaster and all-hazard activities.

New Mexico Gas company officials told state reps that they have pre-ordered enough gas for a new storm expected to hit the state on Tuesday and Wednesday and hope to have all remaining 21-Thousands homes without supply relight by late today or tomorrow.

They said crews have been authorized to relight substandard furnaces if they can get them to a minimum “safe state.”

Vice President and Chief Legal Council for the New Mexico Gas Company Thomas Domme told committee members that the company is setting up phone lines to expedite customer claims for damages they incurred after the supply shortage -- mostly for frozen pipes. He said he claim will have to be individually analyzed.

Domme said no serious injuries have been reported.

Visit this link for the gas relight schedule.

To file a damage claim check this link at the New Mexico Gas Company’s website.

Lujan, who extended his visit to New Mexico to attend this morning's hearing in the Roundhouse, returned to Washington, D.C. this afternoon.

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