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City to negotiate for 2019 Christmas Railway event

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City Councilor Juan Oropesa, right, expressed reservations about approving negotiations for the annual Roswell Christmas Railway during the City Council meeting on Oct. 10. Councilor George Peterson, left, voiced similar concerns. Councilor Angela Moore, center, is also pictured. (Alison Penn Photo)

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Council also approves negotiating for upcoming Night of the Living Zoo event

Negotiations for two events to be held at the Spring River Zoo were recently approved by the Roswell City Council, but a couple of councilors expressed reservations about the Roswell Christmas Railway (RCR) since another councilor runs the event.

At the monthly meeting on Oct. 10, City Councilor Jacob Roebuck, of Roebuck Entertainment, recused himself from the discussion and vote on the request for proposals (RFP) for events to be held at the zoo. Roebuck was elected as Ward 1 City Councilor in March of last year and has produced RCR since winter 2016.

Only two proposals — one for the Night of the Living Zoo, put on by Friends of the Spring River Zoo, and the Roswell Christmas Railway, run by Roebuck Entertainment — were received, evaluated and scored, with 125 points possible.

City Attorney Aaron Holloman said the proposal evaluation committee ranked the Friends’ event at 96 points and the Roswell Christmas Railway at 63 points, with a recommendation to approve both events.

With a final vote of 7-2 on Oct. 10, the council approved that negotiations could begin between the city manager and the organizers of the two events. Councilor Juan Oropesa, who also represents Ward 1, and Councilor George Peterson voted against the final motion.

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Before the final vote, Oropesa and Peterson made an amendment vote on the events separately; the amendment failed 5-4. Councilors Jeanine Corn Best, Steve Henderson, Barry Foster, Caleb Grant and Savino Sanchez voted against this amendment, while Peterson, Oropesa, Angela Moore and Judy Stubbs voted in favor of it.

This year’s RCR dates are Nov. 29-Dec. 28 in the evenings, and the event uses the zoo’s train and property near the pond. City Manager Joe Neeb said there is a contractual agreement for the event between Roebuck Entertainment and the city.

The other event approved for negotiations, Night of the Living Zoo, is the second annual installment of the Halloween-themed fundraiser and family event. It began Friday and continues Saturday from 5-8 p.m. at the zoo.

“The reason I voted yes is because it (the RCR) does give the city, the citizens, somewhere to go for these holidays, but I really believe that prior to all this, this has to be fixed,” Sanchez said, explaining his actions on the final vote. “It has to change that we do not go through this again — that we understand what has to happen and everybody understands. …”

Councilor conflict

“I see a conflict in the fact that Councilor Roebuck is very interested in upgrading the zoo,” Oropesa said. “But there’s a reason for that, in my opinion, because it would benefit his railway event. And so for that reason, I would hate to penalize the friends of the Spring River Zoo, but I’m not able to support both of them as a package. …”

The question of whether or not it’s a conflict of interest for Roebuck’s event to receive funds or assistance from the city, while he serves on the council, has been raised in the past at various City Council meetings and committees. Holloman said the new process for selecting events complies with the Governmental Conduct Act, allowing Roebuck to have his event while being an elected councilor by participating in a competitive bid process.

“The work I am doing in my role of city councilor to help turn the zoo around has no direct benefit to the Roswell Christmas Railway,” Roebuck wrote in a statement. “In fact, what is more likely is if we continue to improve the zoo at some time in the future, the zoo will no longer be able to host the Christmas Railway because of their growth.”

Sound system

“… It’s unethical for a city councilor to make money off a city property,” Peterson said at the Oct. 10 meeting. “It is legal, but not ethical. He made $250,000 last year and there was no accountability. We’ve seen a late report he gave us. He damaged a microphone set-up — $2,900 he didn’t reimburse the city and it’s very unethical. …”

According to a records request to verify the cost, the sound system equipment was valued at $2,202.62. The records request showed the 2018 report on the event was due Jan. 30, but an extension was approved for 30 days, and Roebuck sent in the report on Feb. 18.

Roebuck did confirm that a sound system was damaged “due to wind,” not “due to neglect or misuse by Roswell Christmas Railway staff.” He said the damage was communicated “immediately” to the city and with a declination from Neeb to bill the RCR.

In an email obtained via the records request, Neeb wrote to staff that the city would not require reimbursement for the damage to the sound system since there was confusion about the way the RCR was handled as a combination of a special event and as a contractual agreement.

Finances

Saying it was “wrong” to penalize Roebuck for being a councilor and producer of the RCR, Best said her business, which is now closed, worked with the city in the past and profited. She wanted the council to move on from the issue and move in a “positive” direction to rebuild the zoo.

Responding to Best, Oropesa said the fact that the RCR used lodgers’ tax in past years was the difference since it increased Roebuck’s profits; he called on Roebuck to “reimburse the city” what was spent in lodgers’ tax. Lodgers’ tax is a municipal tax on short-term rentals such as hotels, which can be used for marketing expenses and other tourist activities that would draw out-of-town dollars to the city.

In a previous interview, Roebuck said he decided to not apply for lodgers’ tax funding from the city for this year’s event but was awarded lodgers’ tax for the first three years. The city’s lodgers’ tax policy states that the funds will be awarded “at no more than 50% of eligible expenses on a direct pay or reimbursement basis only.”

Oropesa also was concerned about the extension of the 2017 contract, which was extended to the 2018 event, which he said was “the day before the election.” From a records request, Roebuck Entertainment sent an emailed request for an extension on March 1 and Neeb approved it on March 5. The municipal officers’ election was March 6.

Foster confirmed with Neeb that the city also earned money from lodgers’ tax if it brought people to the city who spent their money here. The records request showed the city earned $9,838 from their portion of the RCR ticket sales in 2018. The total ticket sales amount was $134,132.

For the same year, city services for the event totaled $12,917 — a loss of $3,079.04 including the loss of the sound system. Neeb said the city’s contribution for the RCR broke even for the first two years, but the third year, expenses exceeded the income.

The 2018 report showed that the RCR’s total income was $247,362 and the total expense was $186,422. Roebuck said the gross profit of the event was $60,940. However, he said expenses such as “office staff, supplies and equipment” were not included, and those costs were equal to the profit.

“If our priority was profit, we would not be spending our energy on the Roswell Christmas Railway,” Roebuck wrote in a statement. “Every year we push ourselves to create the best Christmas experience Roswell has ever had because we believe celebrating Christmas with family and friends is one of the things that makes life worth living.”

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