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Steering Committee recommends against formation of independent airport authority

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Roswell City Manager Joe Neeb talks Thursday at the Roswell City Council’s Finance Committee meeting about the recommendation from the Airport Authority Steering Committee to partner with Chaves County in managing the Roswell Air Center, rather than form an independent governing body. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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Seven months after its inception, the Airport Authority Steering Committee recommended against the formation of an independent governing authority that would take ownership and management of the Roswell Air Center. The committee instead recommended the city partner with Chaves County in the Air Center’s management.

The recommendation comes just a little over two years after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law House Bill 227, introduced into the House of Representatives and the Senate by legislators representing Roswell.

The legislation allows cities in possession of former military air bases, such as Roswell, to form independent governing boards that would own, manage and develop the air centers and have the authority to issue industrial revenue bonds to fund infrastructure or building projects.

The Roswell City Council, in a July resolution, authorized City Manager Joe Neeb to hold formal talks with then-County Manager Stan Riggs and to form a citizen advisory group charged with gathering information on what it would take to form an airport authority. 

Neeb summed up the report in a presentation to the City Council’s Legal Committee at its regular meeting late Thursday afternoon. The committee voted 3-0 to accept the report. Councilor and committee vice-chair George Peterson was absent. Also in attendance at the meeting were City Councilors Margaret Kennard, Jeanine Best, Angela Moore and Juan Oropesa, and Chaves County Commissioners Dara Dana, Richard Taylor and Jeff Bilberry.

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Mayor Dennis Kintigh, members of the steering committee and other community members were also in the audience for the meeting.

The report will not go before the full City Council at this point and any steps toward changing management of the Air Center will be up to the council, Neeb said after the nearly 90-minute presentation and discussion.

He said he didn’t expect much to happen for at least a month as council members digest the information.

“I’m assuming we’ll have a few more questions after today and then we’re ready at any point in time when they’re ready to say, ‘All right, let’s take this to the next point,’” Neeb said.

The steering committee said in its recommendations that establishing an airport authority “is not advised at this time,” explaining in an analysis in its three-page report “the legislation leaves unanswered questions.”

It cited the complexities of transferring water rights, utilities and easements and the palatability of the city giving up its asset to a separate governing body as other reasons for not recommending an airport authority.

The recommendation was unanimous, according to Neeb and the report.

Instead, the committee — comprised of 10 residents and the city and county managers — recommended the city of Roswell form a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) with Chaves County to expand funding and broaden resources for the airport.

The city and county have a JPA for the Pecos Valley Regional Communications Center. Neeb said an agreement for the airport could build off that framework.

The JPA, the analysis said, could be similarly structured to an airport authority and would allow the city to retain ownership of the Air Center.

The committee recommended the JPA would outline the establishment of an oversight commission that would recruit, hire and oversee a professional management firm to run airport operations.

“The committee believes the airport has tremendous potential to grow but the current governance and operational structure is not optimal to achieve that growth,” the report said.

It cited the changing nature of the City Council with elections every two years and the procedural hurdles of council oversight as not providing stability for efficient and focused management of the Air Center.

“Removing the day-to-day management of the airport from an elected body gives some level of insulation from political influence and provides a more business-oriented climate for prospective partners and tenants,” the report said.

In its research, the steering committee considered previous studies including the 2017 Roswell International Air Center Economic Feasibility Study and Action Plan. While the steering committee members did not visit any sites, the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. task force that put together the 2017 study did. Kyle Armstrong, an attorney with Armstrong Energy, was a member of both groups.

Funding was also a factor in the steering committee’s recommendation, Neeb said.

“When you look at the authorities the task force went and visited, every one of the authorities that were operating really well were better-funded and had more resources,” Neeb said.

“We really believe that it is putting the right partners at the table and investing in this asset in greater detail. That’s what’s going to make our Air Center move forward faster,” he said.

Neeb said while the JPA would be between the city of Roswell and Chaves County, it could in the future include other regional counties or communities as partners, similar to the agreement that brought flights to Phoenix from American Airlines.

Taylor asked if the committee had researched the costs of hiring a professional management service. The committee had not, Neeb said.

“It seems like these are things we need to explore, find out whatever it costs for a management deal and some of their recommendations. I think a lot can be dictated by how the joint powers agreement is set up especially to the management and whether this would actually work,” Taylor said.

Kintigh agreed and suggested the next step would be a request for information from companies that manage air centers.

“Their response is going to drive how we would structure any other agreements. Right now we’re in the dark,” Kintigh said. “That’s something we need to get resolved first.”

Oropesa asked about financial considerations of a JPA, including who would be the financial agent and how such an agreement would affect the city’s general fund.

Neeb said because the city would own the Air Center, it would act as a fiscal agent for revenue such as legislative appropriations. The agreement would have no impact on the city’s general fund, he said.

The steering committee members, named publicly for the first time at Thursday’s meeting, were Armstrong; Mike Espiritu, president of the EDC; attorney Amy Coll; Mike McLeod, XCel Energy; Chris Cortez, Atkins Engineering; Matt Martinez, Eastern New Mexico Medical Center; Shawn Powell, president of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell; Tres Featherstone, Featherstone Energy; and Lori Ordonez, representing nonprofit operations. Neeb and new County Manager Bill Williams as well as his predecessor, Riggs, also served on the steering committee. City Clerk Sharon Coll was scribe.

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

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