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City-county talks on air authority sought

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Daily Record File Photo A resolution approved Thursday clears the way for the City Manager and County Manager to hold talks, and for creation of an advisory group to determine what would be needed to create an airport authority.

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More than a year has passed since state legislation was enacted that would enable the Roswell Air Center to be governed by a regional body, and city employees are now ready to hold formal discussions with the county about how that might happen.

City Manager Joe Neeb and Interim City Attorney Parker Patterson have prepared a resolution for consideration of the Roswell City Council to give Neeb authority to begin formal talks with the Chaves County manager.

It also would create a new citizens’ group of business and civic leaders to help figure out the issues involved in forming an authority of appointed officials to take over the airport and its assets, owned and managed entirely by the city since the U.S. government closed the Walker Air Force Base in 1967.

Speaking at a June 25 meeting of the Roswell City Council Legal Committee, Neeb said that he has been having informal talks with current Chaves County Manager Stanton Riggs for a while. But he said he had met with members of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. and its Roswell International Air Center Task Force, which led efforts to get the signed legislation, and that they have suggested this way of moving the process forward.

“What it does, it establishes some directives for the city manager and the county manager to come together, utilize an ad hoc committee, a group of individuals that can help with bits and pieces of putting together the actual city code and the information pertaining to how an authority would work for the city of Roswell and Chaves County,” Neeb said.

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The legislation that allows former military airports in New Mexico to become special economic districts governed by regional authorities was signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February 2019, a year after Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of a similar bill.

The legislative effort was spearheaded by the Roswell International Air Center (RIAC) Task Force, a sub-group of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., which had been discussing the possibility of an authority to boost job and economic growth at the Air Center for decades. An authority, which exists for hundreds of other airports in the United States, also was recommended by two studies in 1998 and 2017.

But, even after the legislation was signed into law, the city decided not to move forward with formal joint city-county discussions immediately. Instead, it prepared a “separation report” completed in June 2019 that described the many legal, financial and logistical issues that will be involved. Discussions of that report have occurred publicly and with the city of Roswell Airport Advisory Commission, chaired by Mayor Dennis Kintigh.

“It is not going to be an easy task to put all that information together,” Neeb said. “We now have to answer all the ‘what if’ questions about how the services will behave and all of that.”

The proposed resolution also indicates that the work of the city and county managers and the ad hoc committee would be forwarded to the City Council by February 2021.

The resolution received an initial approval of the Roswell City Council Legal Committee on June 25 and is scheduled to be considered by the entire council at its July 9 meeting.

Neeb was unavailable until next week for additional comment. County Manager Stanton Riggs said he has not yet seen the resolution but is pleased that the county will be involved in developing a plan.

“It is something that we have been wanting to do for a while,” he said, “and we are more than happy to work with them.”

Riggs added that the county can “bring a lot to the table” and that it would consider whether funding might be a part of that. The county was the entity that put a $5 million infrastructure project for the Air Center on its capital outlay priority list forwarded to the state Legislature, which approved the project during the 2020 session.

Neeb said an approved resolution will give the process more “credence” and provide a clear method for the City Council to make decisions about what it wants to do.

Jon Hitchcock, a member of the former RIAC Task Force, and Airport Advisory Commission member Bud Kunkel expressed their support for the resolution.

Hitchcock said something needs to be done to formalize cooperation between the city and county.

“It is going to take the city staff. They really will be the ones who will answer the questions about how to move this ahead,” said Hitchcock, adding that the county manager also needs to participate.

“There is a lot of opportunity for other financial support that I don’t think has really been considered,” Hitchcock said.

Kunkel agreed that county financial support might be needed, and he said that only the city can provide the information necessary to identify possible solutions to issues raised in the separation report.

The report indicated that some of the issues would include obtaining Federal Aviation Administration approval of change of ownership; finding a way for the airport to be financially self-sufficient, as it now receives city general funding for operations, as well as generates its own revenues and grants; determining water rights and water usage issues; making decisions about staffing; and determining how the Air Center would pay for services it now receives free as a city asset, including fire and police service, financial oversight, and engineering and construction services.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

 

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.