Peter Romero, 71, rode his white 1985 Honda Goldwing motorcycle for the first time in at least five years this summer when he took a drive through Tierra Amarilla and then drove the eight miles from Chama to the New Mexico-Colorado state line.
He did not even know if the motorcycle would start when he asked one of his three sons to go outside with him and try to start it.
Today it sits in his front yard, next to a pile of firewood, near his home’s towering glass windows, broken and covered with a tarp.
“You should see how the heart feels when I was able to ride my bike after so many years,” Romero said. “I was able to ride it this year, I hope I can ride it next year.”
Romero received a liver transplant in February 2016 and he said this is the best he has felt physically in years. Although he takes long pauses during conversation and the pitch of his voice rises with the sound of stress, he smiles widely when he talks about being on his bike.
Despite the momentary smiles, he said there is one thing that is always in the back of his mind: His trash bill from North Central Solid Waste Authority.
The Authority placed a lien on his property April 29 for $8,871 for unpaid trash bills, fees and interest.
It has become a common story to hear from Authority customers over the last year as they have organized a petition asking the First Judicial District Court to convene a grand jury investigation into the company’s billing and business practices.
La Madera resident Antonio DeVargas and others collected 527 signatures, 327 more than required by the state’s constitution to ask a court to convene a grand jury, and submitted it to the court on June 5.
The petition states the people want a grand jury to “investigate allegations of malfeasance, misappropriation of public monies, billing and collecting money for services not rendered, fraud and any other illegal acts committed” by anyone associated with or employed at any time at the Authority.
Romero alleges he has never once received service from the Authority and its employees have not picked up so much as a napkin from his home. There is no familiar blue polycart in his yard.
While a lien can be a financial inconvenience, become a hurdle when buying or selling a home or damage a credit score, it became a serious health issue for Romero.
Romero’s home in Ensenada sits on land passed down to him by his mother and he purchased two adjoining lots from other family members. His property stretches back over a hundred feet over green fields of grass.
Although he began building his home in the early 1980s, Romero lived in Las Vegas and spent the majority of his working life as a miner building water diversion tunnels in Colorado. He eventually went to work for the state’s behavioral health facility, where he taught wood burning, upholstery and pottery classes in the Corrections Department.
He said he left the power on at his house in Ensenada while he lived in Las Vegas, but only had a small Sanyo refrigerator plugged in. He would check on the house occasionally, but did not start living there permanently until his retirement in 2010. Doctors found he had liver cancer in 2011 and he then began receiving treatment in Phoenix, where his oldest son lives.
“Most of my time was spent, mind and then money, everything was spent to solve the problem of the cancer,” he said with a long exhale. “Chemo, radiation, having to fly to Phoenix, having to fly back.”
A year after his liver transplant, he needed to finish his house to make it easier for him to live in. He was using a walker and having to go up and down a flight of stairs to use the bathroom. His kitchen is unfinished, so he has to use a cook stove tucked inside his laundry room.
He also needed a reliable vehicle so he could drive to Santa Fe for regular doctor’s appointments.
In April 2017 he applied for a loan, using a piece of property with no electricity and no livable structures as collateral. This is when he found out the Authority had placed the lien on it. His application was denied.
Romero said he first began trying to figure out a solution to his bill with former general manager Gino Romero, but Gino Romero did not make time to meet with him. He met with current General Manager Peter Fuller, but he alleges they also failed to reach a solution.
Peter Romero said he is willing to pay four or five years in back bills, but he will not pay all of it.
“I would pay them, too, but I ain’t going to pay them that much money,” he said. “I ain’t, I ain’t. And if I die because I didn’t pay them, then I die because I didn’t pay them.”
Romero said the Authority made a mistake and placed the lien on the wrong property, instead of the property with his home.
His attorney Richard Rosenstock wrote an email to the Authority April 19 to fix the situation, after which Peter Romero received an updated lien for the correct property.
“I’ve been stressed out for a long time now,” Romero said. “You put yourself in my feet and the problems I’ve gone through and then you want to fix a problem, you can’t. You want to finish your house that you started years ago because God gave you another chance, and you can’t.”
A blood pressure monitor lay on Romero’s large white coffee table, between a medicine bottle, notebooks, pens and other odds and ends. He said he has been having consistent high blood pressure for the past several days. As he talked about his situation he would become visibly upset, tears would come to his eyes and he would tell himself to calm down.
Fuller said he talked to Romero about his bill, but it was in the first three months of his tenure at the Authority, and he did not fully understand the Rio Arriba County ordinance that dictates how trash billing works.
The Authority was formed under a Joint Powers Agreements between Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara Pueblo, the city of Española and the County in November 2002 and began operations in October 2004. Prior to this, the County provided trash service to residents.
The Authority continues to abide by the County’s 1997 solid waste ordinance, which states customers must “pay all applicable collections fees, whether the collection service is utilized or not.”
“I understand the frustration,” Fuller said. “I’m a customer. I have to pay for trash and when the perception is ‘Hey, you’re not servicing me, why do I pay anyways?’ You are paying to support an infrastructure, without which, nobody moves any trash.”
Fuller said he wants to hear from customers about what they think is a fair solution to this problem and would like to put a survey out to find out what people want trash service in the County to look like.
“There are people, all the good citizens who pay and there are many, many, many of them, I’m very grateful to them,” he said. “They’re subsidizing the people who don’t really care and are going to throw stuff in the arroyo or just going to try and get away with not paying.”
Although Romero’s home remains unfinished, he is proud of what he has accomplished. The flagstone decorating his wall came from a local quarry. The ponderosa pine vigas and aspen latillas are from the forest in Canjilon. He peeled the wood himself. He even made his own kitchen cabinets.
He made the adobes and stacked his own house. He wants to give the property to his three sons.
He continues to spend only part of the year at home, visiting family during the winter to get away from the cold weather. He still pays for his electricity bill each month. He burns his trash.
“I want to get everything straightened out and everything, in case I die,” he said, standing outside his home, leaning on the white truck he purchased with the money he borrowed from a friend. “In case I die, everything, I mean, I don’t want my sons to be hassling over things that were mine.”