In a story today by Diana Alba in the Las Cruces Sun News it was revealed that the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) has ordered the City to clarify a number of issues relating to a plan to acquire land for a new City Hall. Alba has done an excellent job of covering this story over the past few weeks, so I don't need to go into too much detail about the background.
Mayor Resendiz has proposed buying a 22 acre lot on the corner of Gibson-Veck Road and Sunland Park Drive, for $2.85 million, to be used for the new City Hall. Stan Fulton, the owner of the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, has agreed to allow the City to borrow the $2.85 million, interest-free, from a nearly $12 million grant he made to Sunland Park to help pay for a new international port of entry to connect Anapra, Mexico, and Sunland Park. As structured by Frank Coppler, the City's attorney, Sunland Park would repay the loan by issuing revenue bonds against franchise fees from the Camino Real Landfill. Coppler, incidentally, has acted as the Landfill's attorney in the past.
Last week three of the six Sunland Park city councilors complained that Mayor Martin Resendiz has not provided enough information about the plan and filed a request for information under the public records inspection act. Among the information requested are details of the appraisal undertaken to value the land. No action has yet been taken on this request.
One of the issues the DFA has asked the City to clarify is the relationship between councilors and the owners of the 22-acre lot.
Another is the budgetary implications of a $2.85 debt for a city with a budget of less than $4 million.
In other words, what would this debt load do to the city's ability to borrow in the future? According to the Sun News story, Coppler has indicated that if the $2.85 million is not repaid within two years, the land would revert to Fulton. Is this the best way to structure such a loan? Is there a better way? Can Sunland Park realistically be expected to pay this off in two years, solely from franchise fees? The New Mexico Environmental Department last fall gave Sunland Park a one-year extension to operate. What if the NMED refuses to grant the Landfill a permit to operate? What will happen to the franchise fees?
It is highly unusual for DFA to interfere in the affairs of a municipal government, to the extent of demanding answers to pointed questions about a proposed transaction. It is also highly unusual for three city councilors to resort to the public records act to get information that should have been readily available not only to councilors but also to the public at large. Why the secrecy?
There are other questions that come to mind as well. Why 22 acres? Does the City really need 22? Why not 5 or 10? How much is the building of a City Hall complex going to cost? Where will the City get the money? When can this be expected to happen? Is this something citizens really want and can afford?
Sunland Park approved an economic master plan in 2006. In that plan a city hall complex was envisioned at a location on Sunland Park Drive near Western Playland, next to a canal, with a bridge connecting people to the river. The 22-acre location was designed for a shopping center. Has the master plan been amended since Martin Resendiz became mayor last year? If not, why would the city act against its own master plan? Violating it might well cause potential investors and businesses to lose confidence in the city's ability to plan reliably into the future.
On Thursday morning, March 5, Resendiz was so anxious to seal the deal that he called an emergency meeting of the city council for that evening. But by that time suspicions were so high only one council person and Resendiz showed up so the meeting had to be cancelled. Is there some urgency to buy this land, now? If so, what is it? If not, why not wait until plans for a city hall complex can be drawn up at least in conceptual form, with a price tag, and plenty of time for discussion by citizens about the merits of spending several million taxpayer dollars that way, as opposed to some other way.