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‘Artesia’s a special place…’: Former mayor reflects on 18 years in local government

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Phil Burch

Phil Burch can’t pinpoint one particular memory – or even a small handful – that stands out most from his decade of public service in Artesia.

“I could keep you here all day, I do know that,” he laughs.

Sitting in the airy, naturally-lit confines of the Artesia Public Library, Burch, who opted this year for retirement rather than running for a third term as mayor of Artesia, looks quite comfortable with the decision. A city council meeting is scheduled for that evening, and for the first time in a long time, he’s not in his office preparing, leaving that to newly-elected mayor Raye Miller.

“As I was leaving the house, I told Vicki, ‘I know where I’ve been on the second Tuesday in March for the last 18 years, and tonight, I won’t be there,’” Burch says. “So I think we need to go out to eat.”

He continues to ponder his fondest reminiscences while recounting his history in local government.

Burch moved from Artesia following his graduation from high school and returned with wife Vicki in 1997, not intending to stay.

“Vicki’s parents had both passed, and there were a lot of things that needed to be finalized,” he says. “So we were going to come here, take care of all that, and at the time, I was between jobs. I was going to look for a job online, and then we’d move off to our next destination.”

As fate would have it, a job presented itself in Artesia, at Penasco Valley Telecommunications (PVT).

“I had about 10 years to go till retirement, and that turned out to be my job for the next 10 years,” says Burch.

Not long into Round Two in his hometown, Burch’s brother-in-law, a former city councilor, told him he should give civil service a try.

“We argued that point for a while,” he says. “Finally, Vicki said one night, ‘Why don’t you just give it a try?’ So I ran and was elected for the two-year term of a person who had been appointed. Then I ran again in 2002 and 2006.”

While in the midst of Burch’s third term as a councilor, then-mayor Manuel Madrid fell ill, and Burch was asked to serve as acting mayor. In 2008, Madrid passed away, and Burch was appointed to complete his term. He went on to serve two full four-year terms as mayor, reelected in 2010 and 2014.

The years he spent as a government official seemed to fly by, but as he counts them, the scope of it hits home.

“Since the decision not to run, and the more you think about it, the more you realize it was a really long period of time,” Burch says. “But it was a personally fulfilling period of time.”

Recalling his time as a new city councilor in 2000, Burch lands upon a memory that takes him full circle. Since 2013, when the Artesia High School Natatorium was demolished, the community has been without a public pool, a fact that has impacted numerous residents, from the AHS swim teams to elderly residents who used the facility for therapy to local parents and children left without an option for swimming lessons.

The city grappled with the cost of constructing a new pool for five years before, in late January, the newly-formed Artesia Aquatic Center Foundation approached them with a public-private partnership option for an indoor-outdoor swimming facility.

The council, with Burch’s encouragement, approved participation.

“When I was first elected councilor, somebody said, ‘Well, what is it you’re wanting to do, what do you want to change?’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘I would like to see Artesia have an outdoor swimming pool.’ I can remember as a kid, during the summertime, if my parents wanted to find me, they could go to the swimming pool or they could go to the Little League baseball diamond, and I was going to be at one of those two.

“It just occurred to me there was no place for kids to go swimming in the summer and have a good time, and that was my mission. And it stayed my mission for about six years till I realized there wasn’t another soul on that council at the time that cared about that.”

Burch said the prevailing opinion at that point was the natatorium was sufficient. Once it was lost, the need became more pronounced.

“As it turns out, in my tenure, Artesia isn’t going to have an outdoor swimming pool, but they will in about 12 months or so,” he says. “So I’m pleased with that. At least the agreement was put in place while I was still around.”

During his time as mayor, Burch was also involved in many state and regional organizations, such as the New Mexico Municipal League, for which he served eight years as a board member, four as a District 4 (Southeast New Mexico) representative, and four as an at-large member. Burch was also on the board of the SENM Council of Governments for more than a decade, serving as president for two of those years.

“Through groups like that, you’re meeting with people who are in your same position, going through your same headaches and heartaches, and it really draws you pretty close,” he says. “Some of the best relationships that I walk away from are those.”

Involvement in government activities beyond city limits provided Burch with a few more of his favorite moments.

As part of a group comprised of local officials and representatives of the Artesia and Roswell chambers of commerce, Burch had the opportunity to travel each year to Washington, D.C., to meet with the state’s legislative delegation regarding issues important to the area.

“The first year, it was 20 people with our hats in our hands saying, ‘Oh, gee, could you maybe help us do this or that,’” he says, “really just kind of begging for a little money.

“Over a period of time, the group became a little more vocal, a little more willing to say, ‘You were elected to represent us, and to represent us, this is what we need.’”

On one such trip, Burch and former city councilor George Holmes traveled with their wives to D.C. in hopes of securing airline service at the Artesia Municipal Airport and left with a lesson on the benefits of compromise.

After meeting with aides in the office of the late Sen. Pete Domenici regarding the matter, the party was transported through the tunnel system to the Capitol Building, where they were told Domenici would be coming off the floor to meet with them.

“I remember thinking, ‘A senator is going to come off the floor to see me?’ Burch says. “But he did, and he told us there wasn’t room for everybody to have this airline service. He said, ‘I’m going to help, but the best thing Artesia can do is to join Roswell.’”

Domenici explained Roswell, with its larger population, already had preferable airport and terminal facilities.

“He told us if we helped them, there was a good chance it would happen,” says Burch. “If we didn’t help them, they might not get it, and then we probably wouldn’t get it. He said, ‘I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but I’m asking you to do that.’

“So we did, and that’s the way it turned out. Some politicians would have said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll try to get this done for you,’ but he just looked us right in the eye and said, ‘It will be successful this way,’ and it has been.”

Compromise and sacrifice for the greater good are things Burch says he’s enjoyed over the years from the councils with which he’s worked, as well.

Upon making the transition to mayor, he was initially disappointed to learn he would no longer be part of the voting process but found the councils generally willing to listen to his thoughts and accept guidance when needed.

“Ernest Thompson was known as a mayor that voted all the time, because there was always a 4-4 tie on the council,” he remembers. “People ask me how many times I voted as mayor, and in 10 years, I would be hard pressed to find 10 times. And none of it was over anything of importance – an issue came up, it ended in a tie vote, I voted, and everybody would just say ‘OK’ and move along.

“I think that speaks to how the councils over the last 10 years or so have been pretty focused on what’s important and had kind of the same frame of mind on things.”

He says while different councilors have come and gone, the body as a unit has remained largely conservative when it comes to spending.

“They’ve been mindful that they’re spending somebody else’s money, and that’s been very good for the Artesia community. In the year 2000, when I got on the council, we had a General Fund reserve of $6 million. In 2014, we had $18 million.”

That didn’t indicate things weren’t getting done in the community, either, Burch says, pointing to the Public Safety Complex, park projects such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Complex, skate park and Splash Pad, as well as development along Eagle Draw and a major addition to the Wastewater Treatment Plant, along with construction of wells and water towers.

He waves a hand at his surroundings, as well – easily one of the most modern, state-of-the-art libraries in the region, funded through a public-private partnership with the late local philanthropist Estelle Yates.

“This library is one of the true treasures of Artesia, and not many mayors could enjoy what I did – to see a resident walk in, sit down, and say, ‘Mayor, what are your priorities?’ So you sit there and name them off, and she says, ‘Well, you said ‘library’ about third or fourth down the list. Artesia needs a new library, and I’ll pay half.’

“It’s interesting how quickly a list can get reorganized.”

Looking around at the large Peter Hurd mural hanging prominently above the main shelves, Burch muses likely he nor Yates had envisioned an end-result like the one they received.

“When the mural developed, the design had to develop around it, and it became one of those amazing things that’s just ‘Artesia,’” he says. “It’s a wonderful memory and something the residents of Artesia will enjoy for years to come.”

Those sorts of joint efforts between local government and the private sector have resulted in many projects that have come to set the city apart.

“Artesia’s a special place,” says Burch. “There are not many communities you will find that are like Artesia from the standpoint of the people. This is a very friendly town. Compared to other communities in New Mexico, it’s a wealthy community, but it’s also an extremely generous community.

“If I go down the list of accomplishments or improvements over the last several years, invariably, there’s either an individual or individuals outside of government that have been involved in those.”

He references the establishment of Artesia MainStreet and subsequent renovation of the downtown district, an effort that led to hardship for over a year for local businesses in the construction area but saw entrepreneurs persevere and reap the benefits.

“That happened 18 years ago, and I would still go to meetings across the state, and after introducing yourself and saying you’re from Artesia, you hear one of two things mentioned: the Main Street project or the Artesia Bulldogs.

“It’s not hard to become a pretty proud Bulldog and a pretty proud Artesian because of that.”

While times in the community were prosperous and peaceful for the bulk of Burch’s tenure, there were challenges, as well. The oil and gas industry downturn of 2014 was a blow to Artesia’s economy; it forced the city to tighten its purse strings to the point of cutting employee salaries by 10 percent.

Last year’s struggles with positive indications of E. coli in the local water system also left city officials with difficult decisions to make.

“As a council and as a mayor, you’re responsible for the safety of a community, and if something goes wrong there, you’re the one who’s going to have to answer for it because you’re in charge. It really hits home when you’re dealing with water, because water is such a requirement of life and something people rely on to be safe.

“It was something nobody anticipated. Artesia’s water system was 100 years old or so, and we’d never had anything like that happen. But sometimes things go wrong out of the blue, and it sure gets your attention and tells you that being a mayor or being a city councilor isn’t a game. It’s for real.”

Burch says he has also remained impressed over the years with the way Artesians soldier through crisis. While they may voice their displeasure, the prevailing attitude tends to be of the “this too shall pass” bent.

Such was the case in June 2014, when the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Artesia was called upon to house immigrant mothers and children being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Burch was on a chamber of commerce visit to the FLETC in Glynco, Ga., at the time and remembers being motioned out of the room by then-FLETC director Connie Patrick.

“She said, ‘I just got a call from the Secretary of Homeland Security’s office in Washington, and I want you to be involved in this from the very word go,’” he says. “They wanted the FLETC to, within two weeks, set up arrangements to house up to 1,000 mothers and children.

“Of course it was a shock to me, but I knew enough about the FLETC to know that it was a pretty private place, very secure, and once she said there would be no males, no teenagers, and that security would be taken care of, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, other than we needed to make sure we kept the community involved and aware of everything that was going on.”

The city organized three town hall meetings to address residents’ concerns and dispel any rumors, such as a fear some of the immigrants were ill with communicable diseases.

“Most of the opposition at those meetings was from out-of-town people. It wasn’t really anybody from here,” Burch says. “And the way it turned out was quite beneficial for Artesia, because from that point on, for the director of FLETC operations not just in the U.S. but internationally, Artesia became her example of community involvement, and she was very, very proud of the city of Artesia for the way that whole situation was handled.”

Burch is proud of Artesia, as well. He considers the opportunity to return to the place he grew up and become involved in its day-to-day operations a gift, a new perspective on one’s hometown many people never have the opportunity to gain.

“I have to say, I had a wonderful time being the mayor of Artesia,” he says. “To me, it’s such an easy town to be a mayor of, because things generally go well, and even when they don’t go well, people don’t become negative. They just say, ‘We’re determined to get through this; we’ll do it.’

“We don’t have everything some people would like us to have. Of course, there are some people who say, ‘We’ve got everything we need, I don’t want any more people coming here,’ but I think most of us have said things like, ‘I wish we had an Olive Garden, I wish we had a Chili’s.’ I think we’ve seen some positive growth, and I think a little more would be a good thing for the people of the community.”

That said, he smiles a bit wistfully, knowing he won’t be here to see it.

“It’s such a neat community to live in, but unfortunately, Vicki and I aren’t going to be living in it anymore,” Burch says.

Upon his decision not to run for reelection, the couple began making plans to relocate to the Tampa, Fla., area, where their son is a business owner.

“We knew if we wanted to be close to him, we were going to have to go there, because he’s not coming here,” he says. “And I have no interest in being an elected official again.

“So we’re just going to enjoy our family now. There’s so much I know I will miss, and I already feel it. But this is what comes next, and hopefully, it will all be worth it, too.”

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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