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Christmas Railway full steam ahead

Mike Mathews, Louis Najar, and Joe Neeb listen as Carrol Caudill speaks during public participation at the City Council meeting on Thursday. Randy Robertson waits in line to speak after Caudill. (Alison Penn Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Lodgers’ tax funding for the Roswell Christmas Railway was approved by the Roswell City Council in a close vote, and six people spoke publicly on the matter during Thursday’s full council meeting.

The final vote was 5 to 4. Councilors Jeanine Corn Best, Savino Sanchez, Caleb Grant, Barry Foster and Judy Stubbs voted in approval. Councilors Steve Henderson, Angela Moore, Juan Oropesa and George Peterson voted against the measure.

Jacob Roebuck, city councilor for Ward 1 and the Christmas Railway event’s producer, recused himself from the discussion and vote as he had stated he would do in a previous article.

During a recent finance committee meeting, Henderson raised concerns about awarding lodgers’ tax funding because Roebuck is both a councilor and has a financial interest in the Christmas Railway, which is held annually at the Spring River Park & Zoo during the holidays.

“I appreciate my fellow councilors’ desire to maintain the integrity of the council and the city of Roswell,” Roebuck said in a written statement. “After consulting with multiple lawyers, former city officials, and other wise counsel, my supporters and I believe that there is nothing illegal, immoral or unethical in the way we are handling Roswell Christmas Railway’s relationship with the city.”

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Roebuck said in recusing himself from the discussion, he complied with the New Mexico Governmental Conduct Act (GCA), and he left to “allow free and open debate” among his fellow councilors. During the vote and discussion, he said he felt at peace waiting on the bridge of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

“I am glad the council passed the matter because I don’t want qualified people who do business with the city to be afraid to run for office,” Roebuck continued. “The Government Conduct Act applied correctly allows for officials or employees to have contracts with the city under the proper conditions, which eliminate a conflict of interest.”

City Manager Joe Neeb said the Christmas Railway’s application was for $20,500 (on a 50 percent reimbursement basis) in lodgers’ tax funding, less than requested last year. Neeb said there is a check and balance in the system and the city has access to bills and invoices of the railway. He also said funding does not go to the organization directly, but rather toward advertising and marketing to attract visitors from outside of Roswell. Neeb confirmed a determination from the attorney general had not been received at this time.

During the meeting, Mayor Dennis Kintigh asked City Attorney Aaron Holloman to share his insights on the record. Holloman said the event as it pertains to lodgers’ tax does not fit in the GCA, and in the next year, a new, competitive process will need to be developed for the Christmas Railway.

To clarify, Neeb said a potential competitive process would create a competitive market for similar events that could be held at Spring River Park & Zoo.

Henderson reiterated his question about whether the city was able to grant the funds in accordance with the GCA. Henderson added that Roebuck is not in violation of the act at this time since he recused himself and announced his interest publicly. However, Henderson still questioned if the current process was competitive enough. Henderson said the procurement officer for the state said the Christmas Railway should be bid.

But since the contract was extended, Henderson said that point is moot for 2018.

Oropesa and Peterson expressed concerns about a councilor receiving lodgers’ tax for the event. Oropesa said approving the lodgers’ tax to Roebuck had implications. He also added that Roebuck is in a difficult situation being on the finance committee, where many events have been voted down for the same funding. Oropesa questioned whether this action would keep “the good ol’ boys” mentality on the council.

Sanchez said he was impressed with the Christmas Railway and believes that Roebuck has a vision that needs to be fulfilled. Sanchez said Roswell needs an attraction like this and the city needs to back Roebuck.

All of the councilors who spoke said they thought the event was worthwhile — whether they approved of granting lodgers’ tax funds or not.

Grant called out some of the other councilors, saying they were “talking out of both sides of their mouths” and were basically “voting against Santa.” Grant argued that the application for lodgers’ tax was competitive already.

Stubbs said she did question the matter in the beginning and sees the matter differently now. Her reasoning was that the funds come from guests staying in hotels — not taxpayers — and she wanted to bring attention to the fact that funds will be reimbursed.

Best voiced that the event was at no cost to the city and should stay in the hands of Roebuck. She showed disapproval for a request for proposal process and wants the event to continue attracting people to Roswell.

When she asked about the Christmas Railway’s contribution to the zoo, Neeb said sales broke even this year. Best said she wanted to see the event move forward and she questioned the judgment of the other councilors. Oropesa countered Best’s comment and asked Mayor Kintigh to control the decorum and professionalism of the meeting.

Rhonda Johnson, Jonathan Kolker, Carroll Caudill, Randy Robertson, Braxton Fulkerson and John Mulcahy shared various speeches on Roebuck’s character and their approval of the event. Johnson said the Christmas Railway should not be penalized since Roebuck is a civil servant offering a benefit to the community and Roswell’s tourism. Kolker shared an animated account of his experience working with Roebuck as an intern and observing his actions in producing the Christmas Railway.

Caudill, who took on the role of Santa Claus at the Railway, shared visitors’ comments on a “luxurious Christmas night” and “wonderful times” at the Railway. Roberston said people in Carlsbad choose to come to the Christmas Railway instead of Party on the Pecos and argued that lodgers’ tax benefits the city. Robertson and Fulkerson said the event improves every year. Fulkerson said the event gave him a sense of pride, to have a quality production in Roswell.

Representing the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Mulcahy said their calculations showed that by spending $20,000, the city is receiving $100,000 in outside income. Mulcahy said the board supports this “excellent economic development event because it portrays a quality of life that is actually a salable entity.”

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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