A dispute between the North Central Solid Waste Authority and Española over $125,000 worth of unpaid trash bills will head to arbitration, the authority’s board decided Thursday.

Española launched its own sanitation department in October rather than continue using, and paying, the waste authority. The authority failed to collect many city residents’ garbage during the previous months, city officials said. 

“The city of Española adamantly feels that the money they’re being billed through North Central is not money that we can lawfully pay, the reason being that North Central is billing the city of Española for services it did not produce for the city,” said North Central Solid Waste Authority Board Member Peggy Sue Martinez, an Española City Councilwoman and the city’s representative on the board. “Our staff and our departments picked up our own trash during those months, so there’s no way the city of Española can pay that bill to North Central.”

Martinez also asked that arbitrators examine the unpaid debts of individual customers billed by the waste authority, which she said would help bring the authority’s billing practices to light.   

The waste authority, a government utility, has placed nearly a thousand active liens on customers’ properties for unpaid garbage bills, records show. Many customers have said they stopped paying the authority because their trash was not being picked up. Garbage routinely goes uncollected across the county on waste authority routes, causing concerns among residents over potential public health risks, critics of the utility say.

The authority cut off Española’s access to a county dumping station in January when the city failed to meet a payment deadline. City officials had to scramble to set up its own infrastructure and equipment to take over the authority's routes in Española. 

Data compiled by the authority shows it could lose $520,000 a year in commercial service revenue to Española’s new utility.

Martinez’s call for arbitrators to consider customer billing disputes alongside the city’s comes as the waste authority prepares for a grand jury investigation into its activities.  

The investigative body will be empaneled for three months starting April 24 to hear evidence and consider “allegations of malfeasance, misappropriation of public monies, billing and collecting money for services not rendered, fraud” and any other alleged illegal acts by those associated with or employed by the waste authority or Rio Arriba County, according to the order establishing the grand jury. 

The grand jury's inquiry could lead to criminal charges, or no legal actions at all, prosecutors said.

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