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WEST SIDE STORY

THE MAYOR'S RACE IS HEATING UP--AND SO IS THE BATTLE FOR THE HISPANIC VOTE.

Barela, who grew up in the Lincoln Park housing projects on West Colfax, isn't shy about taking credit for Santa Fe's progress--or about rebuking her critics. "We've done a lot of good in this neighborhood," she says. "And I don't appreciate our reputation being attacked."

NEWSED's attempts to beautify the Santa Fe streetscape date back to 1986, when it helped convince the city to spend thousands of dollars on new trees, fancy benches, antique-style lights and trash cans and other improvements along two blocks. Further improvements, designed to attract customers and new business to the area, followed on three other blocks in 1992, and more are scheduled for this fall. Because it costs the city extra to maintain the improvements, business and property owners have agreed to pay an additional tax to finance upkeep. The tax pulls in about $20,000 per year.

But the city doesn't perform the street maintenance itself. Instead, it contracts out the work to an organization called the Santa Fe Drive Redevelopment Corporation. Though technically independent, the nonprofit has close ties to NEWSED. It operates "under the direction of NEWSED," according to organization brochures. It is housed in the same building as NEWSED and has the same phone number. And it is headed by NEWSED deputy director Virginia Martinez.

Many merchants and landowners on Santa Fe say the SFDRC does a poor job. When light bulbs burn out in the street lamps, they complain, replacements often don't arrive for months. If a drunk driver careens into a trash can or a lamppost, a year or more might go by before the SFDRC replaces it. Gum and other garbage left on the sidewalks isn't picked up satisfactorily.

"In general, they do a lousy job of keeping it clean," says Clayton Craig, owner of an appliance store on the street. "When things get broken here, it's the typical nonsense. It takes forever to get it done." Adds another property owner, who asks not to be identified, "We are paying money to the city to have our street cleaned and maintained. It's not being done, and we're not getting what we're paying for."

In May, after months of complaining, close to fifty disgruntled merchants and landowners signed a petition asking the city to take the Santa Fe maintenance work away from the SFDRC and give it to a "more effective" contractor. Initially, the city complied. On May 26 Department of Public Works senior architect Mark Leese, the staff person in charge of the contract, wrote to Virginia Martinez and informed her that the city was terminating its agreement with the SFDRC. "I have found it necessary to contract with someone else," Leese wrote. Leese directed Martinez to stop spending money on Santa Fe maintenance and to return $6,000 the city had advanced to the SFDRC in 1993.

Barela says she and Martinez were "absolutely, totally blindsided" by Leese's decision. The SFDRC has always done its best to maintain the street, she says, but the tax on property owners just doesn't bring in enough money to pay for all the work. Replacing a single damaged lamppost, she says, costs close to $5,000--a quarter of the annual maintenance budget. Often the SFDRC is forced to delay work for long periods of time--or to pay for repairs out of its own pocket. "This is not something that brings us any extra money," Barela says. "We don't make a red dime for doing it."

After receiving Leese's letter, Barela and Martinez met with the mayor and City Attorney Dan Muse and asked them to give SFDRC another chance. Going to the top worked: On June 27 Manager of Public Works Mike Musgrave wrote to Martinez and told her that he had reversed Leese's decision. "We have decided we want to work with you to see if we can get the maintenance issues on Santa Fe Drive resolved," Musgrave wrote. And Leese, according to a source at city hall, received a verbal reprimand.

But things didn't end there. The disgruntled merchants next took their case to Deborah Ortega, councilwoman for the district and one of Barela's political enemies. In a June 28 letter to Ortega, the merchants complained that their street had become "dirty and rundown," and that their tax dollars had been "wasted." They made more serious charges as well, alleging that Martinez might have hired "a family member or close friend" to perform work on the street. The owners requested a "thorough audit" of SFDRC.

"We've had our fill, and we're not going to take it anymore," says Dave Murray, who owns a machine shop on Santa Fe. "They've been using all the money that's available to their advantage, not to the advantage of the businessmen on the strip."

(The claims of nepotism and financial mismanagement echo accusations made in a lawsuit by a faction of NEWSED boardmembers in 1988. The directors, including John Garcia, then president of Hispanics of Colorado, charged in the suit that Barela and Martinez had "siphoned off or otherwise wasted corporate assets" by employing relatives at the nonprofit in violation of NEWSED's by-laws. The plaintiffs asked the court to appoint a receiver to seize control of NEWSED and to expel Barela and Martinez from the organization. The suit was eventually dismissed.)

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