Española is a city in two places. Its southeastern tip comprises the northernmost section of Santa Fe County, while the rest of Española rests in Rio Arriba. So, depending on what side of a jagged county line city residents live on, they may be subject to different tax rates, minimum wage laws and criminal codes.
That’s why some people who live in Española on the Santa Fe side have attempted to become residents of Rio Arriba County, where property and gross receipt taxes are lower.
Rio Arriba’s government, which supports the effort, also stands to benefit from annexing the territory. Officials estimate that taxing the area in question, which includes about 70 businesses, could bring the county an additional $1 million of annual revenue.
Momentum to secede grew earlier this year when petitioners gathered more than 700 signatures in support of the proposal, or about 51 percent of Española’s registered voters who live in Santa Fe County.
George Martinez, a retired military officer spearheading the drive, says reaching that threshold should have been enough to send the petition to a judge, who would in turn decide whether to put the question up to countywide vote. But after holding an executive session, Santa Fe’s five-member County Commission rejected the proposal 4-1 on grounds that it is “legally defective.”
Rio Arriba County’s three commissioners and a group called Citizens for Accessible and Representative Government last month sued the officials who made that decision, claiming that Santa Fe County hastily rejected the annexation petition without publishing adequate notice in a newspaper as required by state law. They also argue that the closed-door discussion should have been public.
Martinez believes the county’s decision to reject his petition falls in line with a pattern of ignoring Santa Fe County’s Española constituents. The lawsuit claims Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar took nearly 60 days to respond to Martinez’ first request to approve a proposed petition form.
“We feel they have been delaying this process,” Martinez tells SFR. “We have never had a voice in the Santa Fe County government. This is just another example.”
Santa Fe County maintains that Martinez and the petitioners failed to make the legal case for annexation, meaning the commission had no obligation to publish notice. According to New Mexico law, residents who wish to secede from one county to another must first show that the change will make it “more convenient for the residents of any portion of a county to travel to the county seat of some other contiguous county.” The City of Santa Fe, the administrative center for the county, sits about 25 miles from Española. To reach Tierra Amarilla, the rural county seat of Rio Arriba, residents must drive about 65 miles north.
But Martinez says he would be able to take care of most business, from paying taxes to registering to vote, at the government annex building in Española two miles away from his house. Only jury duty or jail visits would require him to make the trip to Tierra Amarilla. Rio Arriba’s county commission, meanwhile, holds meetings in both towns.
Santa Fe County also claims the lawsuit should be dismissed on procedural grounds. For example, county attorneys wrote in a court filing that the jurisdiction should have been the Steve Herrera Judicial Complex downtown, rather than a Tierra Amarilla court.
On Monday, Henry Roybal, the commissioner who represents the swath of Española in Santa Fe County, issued a statement suggesting Rio Arriba’s lawsuit could jeopardize future collaboration between the two counties.
"Would you work with a neighbor while they are hurling insults and untruths at you?"
“Would you work with a neighbor while they are hurling insults and untruths at you?” Roybal writes. “The benefits of annexation to Santa Fe County residents within Española are far from clear anyway.”
Rio Arriba officials note that Santa Fe County residents already use services located in the northern jurisdiction, including Presbyterian Española Hospital and behavioral health and substance abuse treatment centers. Meanwhile, they point to examples where Santa Fe County could do more.
For example, the Santa Fe County Commission last year dropped a proposal to help fund a 911 dispatch center that serves residents throughout the northern region. Roybal notes that the commission pulled the funding only after Española sued Santa Fe County over a gross receipts tax increase that businesses on the southern side of the county line says puts them at a competitive disadvantage. (In conjunction with the City of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County runs a dispatch center near the county jail south of the city but it only serves the territory outside Española city limits.)
According to a 2014 analysis by Chris Madrid, economic development director for Rio Arriba County, about a third of all residents’ retail purchases happen outside the community, adding up to about $170 million in economic activity and $13 million in gross receipt tax.
Should the annexation proposal succeed, an estimated $200,000 of added revenue would go to the Española hospital, according to Madrid. He says Rio Arriba County wants to invest any additional money on public safety, roads and senior care in the area.
Ralph Sanchez, a retired welder who lives on the northern side of the county line, says Española has more in common, culturally, with Rio Arriba County than it does Santa Fe. “Rio Arriba should be Rio Arriba, man! Santa Fe is totally different,” he says.
But Evon Garcia, a manager at Central Market, which is directly south of the border, says, “They should leave it the way it is.” She added, “Rio Arriba is not very competent.”
Andrew Lujan, the owner and sole employee of Top Notch Barbershop, a business on the Santa Fe side of Española, agrees. “I feel that it’s more fair to pay Santa Fe wages,” he says. Santa Fe County recently increased its minimum wage to $10.66. When SFR mentioned taxes are lower on the other side of the county line, Lujan responded, “I’ve never thought about it like that, but it doesn’t really bother me. I was brought up in Santa Fe County and I opened a business in Santa Fe County.”