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Councilors say city subsidizes DOH with lease terms

Administrative offices for the New Mexico Department of Health Southeast Region will continue to be housed in Building 611 at the Roswell Air Center after the Roswell City Council took no action on a directive to the city manager to end lease negotiations at a special meeting Monday night. The lease will go before the Legal Committee later this month. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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Discussion on one item of Monday’s special meeting of the Roswell City Council was rendered moot before the meeting ever began and eventually, a lack of a quorum killed the motion and ended a nearly five-hour long meeting. However, two councilors expressed their concerns the terms of a lease with New Mexico Department of Health have put the city in a position of financially benefiting the state.

The special meeting was called for the council to discuss COVID-19 related actions in response to actions and further restrictions from the state. The council discussed several directives to City Manager Joe Neeb, including the final item on the agenda to direct him to discontinue negotiations for a lease with the New Mexico Department of Health for its administration building at the Roswell Air Center. However, when the discussion opened, Neeb told the council the day the agenda was made public, Nov. 25, the city received a lease approved by NMDOH.

“The negotiations have ceased anyway because they’re completed. It’s really going to become an axiom of whether or not you want to approve the lease,” Neeb said.

The lease expired Monday. The health department continues to use the building without an active lease for the time being. The building houses the NMDOH Southeast Region administration offices, which oversees Chaves, Lea, Curry, Lincoln, De Baca, Quay, Eddy and Roosevelt counties.

Mayor Dennis Kintigh said he requested the item for Monday’s agenda, but with the signed lease from DOH, he recommended the lease be allowed to go through the normal procedure of going before the Legal Committee for consideration of sending it to the full council. However, as two residents had signed up to speak on the item, he allowed them to be heard.

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The Department of Health has leased Building 611 at 9 E. Challenger Ave. from the city since Dec. 1, 2000, Neeb said, at $102,420 a year. With the building at slightly over 18,000 square feet, that set the rate at about $6 per square foot. Councilors Barry Foster and Jeanine Best said they believed at that rate, the city had been subsidizing the state for those 20 years.

In the recent negotiations, Neeb said, the city requested a market value of $12 per square foot, or $225,408 with a 3% cost of living adjustment each year of the five-year lease. The proposed lease includes an option of three additional five-year terms.

Ultimately, Best, who had made the motion to consider the directive to end negotiations, withdrew her motion, but before anything further could happen, City Clerk Sharon Coll announced Councilor Jason Perry had dropped from the virtual meeting software and the council no longer had a quorum.

With that, the motion died as the meeting was adjourned. The lease will now go to the Legal Committee, which will meet later this month.

One of those who spoke at the meeting was former state Sen. Tim Jennings, who urged councilors to continue leasing the property to the health department, noting there are about 30 to 35 people who work there.

“If you cut the lease and they move out of town, which would be very possible, it would be 30 to 35 jobs lost here, which I think could have a very strong effect in Chaves County,” he said.

The location is a good one for the health department, Jennings said, as it is close to the New Mexico Rehabilitation Center, 72 Gail Harris St., and Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell.

“I would hope that people understand the value of all those people being together and having those other 35 healthcare professionals in there,” he said, adding that he hoped the lease being placed on the special meeting agenda did not give the impression the city was upset with the state.

Councilor Barry Foster said the lease had been something he had been working on since before the pandemic started. He said his concern was that the city was not getting a fair rent for the property and he would rather see the state leasing from a private landlord who pays property tax to the city.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t want them here. We’re logically the best place for them since it’s centrally located,” he said. “It does seem like in lots of things the city is the one with deep pockets. Why is the city subsidizing the state?”

Best said she agreed with Foster and that the city should be asking for $20 to $30 per square foot. She also questioned why the lease includes a 180-day termination notice when other leases the city has have 90-day termination notices.

Perry spoke in favor of continuing the lease.

“I think right now is the worst time to be telling the state of New Mexico we want you out,” he said.

With the nation and New Mexico on the brink of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, he said, forcing the state to find a new location for its regional offices could complicate the process of distributing that vaccine, Perry said.

Perry’s virtual attendance ending put the council’s attendance at five, one short of the quorum required to conduct an open meeting. 

Councilor Angela Moore had also attended through GoToMeeting but her call had dropped during discussion of the previous agenda item. Councilors Juan Oropesa, George Peterson and Savino Sanchez had attended the meeting in person, but each left earlier in the meeting.

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