Rio Rancho Observer
By Zita Fletcher, Observer Staff Writer
PUBLISHED: July 18, 2016
Throughout his career, Sandoval County Manager Phil Rios has shown a talent for motivating diverse groups of people. He has worked with New Mexico government agencies for 26 years, 17 of those years on behalf of Sandoval County.
Rios did not plan a career in government.
Originally from San Angelo in west Texas, Rios served in the U.S. Air Force for 12 years. He was a weapons controller, instructor and evaluator during the post-Vietnam era and the last phases of the Cold War.
“I had a lot of fun,” said Rios, recalling his military service. “I had good times in the Air Force.”
Rios, who logged over 3,700 hours of flying time, piloted many different types of aircraft and served in various places in Europe and the Middle East. He received two air medals.
“I really liked England,” he said. He was stationed at RAF Bentwaters, northeast of London, for two years.
“They live a quieter life … It was easygoing. If I didn’t have family in the U.S., I probably would live in England.”
Rios and his wife, Cindy, moved to New Mexico in 1990. They have one daughter, Michele, and three grandchildren, Elias, Hunter and Blake.
Rios recalled that at the time he relocated to New Mexico, US 550 — then NM 44 — was a two-lane road and Rio Rancho consisted of subdivisions in the desert.
“Where I moved, there were only about 50 houses,” he remembered. “Now there are a lot.”
After applying for various jobs, Rios took a position as the treasurer of the Village of Corrales in November 1990. He showed promising ability in his new role, and, within six months, became the administrator.
“As the administrator of a small community, you’re kind of the ‘all-in-one,” he said. “You handle everything. You get to learn all the aspects of municipal government, whether you like it or not.”
Rios explained the position in Corrales familiarized him not only with managing community services, but public works. His early experiences as a youth working with his uncle in construction helped him understand the perspective of building contractors. He also benefited from his experiences working with Corrales engineers.
“I understand both the small community and incorporated community business,” he said. “I think that’s the advantage I have.”
In November 1999, Rios became director of community services for Sandoval County. After five years, he was asked to take on more responsibilities.
“The county manager at that time asked me to be the public works director,” Rios said. “I said, ‘Sure.’”
When the county manager’s position became vacant in May 2011, the commission chairman asked Rios if he had any objections to taking the reins temporarily. Rios accepted.
When Rios took the helm, there was some dissent among the commissioners about the performance of the previous manager, who was dismissed on a 3-2 vote of the commission.
After six months of serving as the interim county manager, Rios was chosen to officially hold the county’s top executive position by a unanimous vote.
District 4 Commissioner Glenn Walters, currently serving his second term, said it is a pleasure to work with Rios.
“Phil possesses all the knowledge, skills and experiences that make him a valuable asset to Sandoval County,” Walters said. “He is always very responsive and truly has the best interests of Sandoval County in mind.”
Rios’s first contract as county manager was for 18 months. In May, the commission unanimously approved a three-year extension.
“A typical day? Well it all depends,” said Rios, describing his present duties. “Some days it’s easy. Some days it can be a little ‘exciting,’ I guess I should say,” he added, with humor.
His normal schedule revolves around lots of meetings, a steady stream of paperwork and hands-on work with directors and elected officials depending on current events.
Recently, Rios has focused on working closely with law enforcement, health and public safety organizations to create collaboration and resolve countywide issues.
He also takes time to confer with members of the general public, who frequently call him to voice opinions and express their needs.
“Meeting people has probably been the biggest reward,” said Rios, when asked about the most enjoyable aspects of his work. “You make a lot of friends. People want to help and are always willing to figure out a way forward.
“What’s most rewarding is knowing you can get help from anybody,” he added.
He noted that being the top administrator in county government is not without its challenges.
“We do have some elected offices that, as our partner, sometimes feel they have to go a different route,” he said. “Certainly, we always have to work well together. That’s probably, on a day-to-day basis, the hardest portion of my job.”
But Rios, who describes himself as a “people person,” says he has never been put off by challenges.
“Having done this for 26 years, my answers would have been different maybe 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “Government is just how you deal with other people.”
He believes Sandoval County has grown tremendously over the years and has many good prospects for the future.
“We have some great open spaces. We have a lot to offer,” he said.
“Opportunities for Sandoval County are tremendous.”
Among his personal achievements, Rios is proud of the successful partnerships he formed with the City of Rio Rancho and the Town of Bernalillo, as well as collaborations with area pueblos and surrounding counties.
He counted his role in forming the Sandoval Economic Alliance, created on the county’s initiative, as a notable milestone.
“I’m proud that the commission feels very comfortable with me being the county manager and knows that I have the skills to be able to do what they ask,” said Rios. “Looking at that, I think that’s a reward. I think whoever does this job needs to know it’s a privilege that somebody gave them an opportunity.”
While he enjoys golf and fishing, Rios’s favorite hobby is coaching youth football. He coached for the Young America Football League for 19 seasons and served on the organization’s board for about 12 years, teaching diverse groups of youth from ages 8 to 13 how to play together as one team.
Rios’s love for coaching has something in common with his professional accomplishments.
“For me, team sports like football teach people to work with each other even when they don’t like each other. It’s a building block of learning,” said Rios.
“That’s what life is all about — you have to be a team. The team has to work cohesively to get goals accomplished.”
Rios is currently serving his second and last contract as county manager.
He has held his current position since October 2011 and, under a new contract that took effect July 1, he will continue serving as the county’s chief administrative officer until June 30, 2019, when he anticipates he’ll be stepping down from the post.
Having visited nearly every state in the U.S. during his military career, Rios is unsure where he may wish to retire.
In the meantime, he has much work left to do and more projects to complete.
His goals are to keep the county budget balanced to avoid tax increases and to continue forming public and private partnerships.
“In Sandoval County, nobody’s afraid to try anything new. We’re all working for the same goals and the same areas,” said Rios. “Are we pioneers and leaders of a lot of things? I believe we are.”