The latest project on greased skids—renovating the old armory building into the Truth or Consequences Police Department building—shows the current city commissioners’ lack of basic understanding of their fiduciary responsibility.
A good city commission has the people’s interest in view at all times. Good city commissioners are fiduciary agents responsible for ensuring public money is spent wisely and public interests are served. A capital project, such as a police station, would require a civic-minded representative to have a cost analysis done to consider if the armory, other buildings or even a new building is better for the people. A good city commission would look at the city’s global capital-projects needs and the current debt load and then determine if this project should take priority over others, such as the $20 million in emergency repairs to the water system that are supposedly needed.
This $4.5-million project was not among the top five priorities on the Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan the city commission submitted to the state last month. The $20 million in water projects was number one. The armory renovation was not on the ICIP at all. Correcting the flooding problems of the current police station is on the list. If a project is not on the ICIP, it is not eligible for grants. The ICIP yearly process is supposed to be a vetting process in which the paying public approves or is at least informed of why certain projects should have priority. There is no such discussion or reporting or vetting by T or C staff or city commissioners in public. It’s an internal process, the city commission rubber stamping city staff’s recommendations. But state legislators and state agencies assume the process was pure and the public supports the priority projects. They will only give grants for projects on the ICIP that supposedly went through this consensus-building process. If it’s not on the ICIP, no grant, so this project will be entirely paid for by local taxes, unless it is taken off the aforementioned greased skids.
It’s quite tricky how this project is being handled. Instead of the renovation of the armory building being discussed or approved at the Oct. 11 city commission meeting, the city commission skipped that step and went straight to how it is to be financed. That’s right. It’s a given that the armory will be renovated for the police department. I’m not sure how this lack of public due process and public project approval is legal. It certainly isn’t democratic.
During public comment a police officer, a city employee who used to work at the police station, the PD’s evidence technician, District Attorney Virginia Hicks and others expressed their support for the project, sort of. None of them referred to the actual project. They only described the inadequacies of the current police station.
The civilian said she was often afraid because she was often alone in the building. Call-volume increases and lack of enough police officers to respond meant they were always out of the building. The walls, she said, are so thin anyone could break through them. Lack of bullet-proofing at reception desks is also an issue. The evidence room is inadequate, in size and security, making it hard to keep evidence organized and untainted for trial. “And without evidence, you cannot prosecute,” the evidence tech said. Hicks said the building hampers officers and they will serve the public better from an updated environment.
I dared to ask, “why this building?” I pointed out during public comment that the city decided to purchase and renovate a funeral parlor into a police station around 2006 without sufficient vetting and it turned out badly—would the armory be the same? I was a reporter for the Herald newspaper then and I remember the public being doubtful it was a good idea. The lead police officer at the time, not the chief of police, pushed for the funeral parlor’s purchase and renovation and the city commission went along, just as this city commission is going along with the armory renovation the PD seems to want.
During a break in the meeting I asked Chief of Police Luis Tavizon if they are using the architecture and engineering plans from around 2016 and he said, “yes.” He added that using the old plans will save money. I asked if the firm specializes in police buildings, given they are so specialized and complicated. Yes, he said. They specialize in public safety buildings.
In 2016 the city manager was Juan Fuentes and it was he who pushed for the armory to be renovated into a police station.
The armory was given to the city for $1 by the National Guard around 2006, when Jaime Aguilera was city manager. Aguilera didn’t want the city to take on this white elephant, but the city commission over-road him. It was used for storage by the city years back, but has been otherwise useless for 18 years or so.
Fuentes in 2016 and Tavizon now said the building would be big enough for the state police to move in too. No lease agreement, no resolution to share the building and no shared-expense agreement has been mentioned. Tavizon said the building can hold classes and trainings for officers around the state, indicating such visitors would increase heads-on-beds tax and sales-tax revenues, but this too is “build it and they will come” thinking, not planning based on evidence and facts.
Tavizon told me a new building would cost about the same as the renovation. That cost analysis should be shared with the public.
It is also disturbing that the city commissioners and city staff have based decisions on the assumption that “we are growing,” as repeated at the Oct. 11 meeting. The 2020 U.S. Census said we lost 2 percent of our population since 2010. I asked Tavizon if he had any proof of growth. He said he has figures proving increased call volume, which he attributed to increased tourism, not population growth. Those figures should be shared with the public in written form.
I won’t hold my breath. This project is a done deal.
City Commissioner Shelly Harrelson said, “I like to see old buildings repurposed,” as if her personal opinion should be the basis of deciding the public good.
Mayor Amanda Forrister said, “I’m sure the police department didn’t pick this building at random,” as reason enough to approve the project, unwittingly confirming that she had not vetted this project as her fiduciary duty requires. Her querulous tone also indicated her annoyance at any public questioning of the project. The public is supposed to applaud and pay and pay and pay.
City Commissioner Merry Jo Fahl said something like, “we support the police and this project.” I noted the “we” and wondered if the city commission met illegally to approve the project in secret, in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
City Manager Angela Gonzales made a broken and emotional statement about supporting the police and how the building is needed to uphold their dignity.
Mayor Pro Tem Rolf Hechler said the armory building “has good bones,” and therefore should be the new police station, indicating it would save money, providing no evidence for either assumption. He said he was a city commissioner when Fuentes pushed the idea. The matter went to referendum, he said, but gave no context. He said false information was circulated back then, only giving one instance—the cost of asbestos removal was exaggerated and will cost only $20,000.
I’ll give the context. In 2017 the question of whether to renovate the armory building was forced to a public vote by the people. The public should be given the ballot language. I’m not sure whether Fuentes also hid and folded the project approval into a financing decision, as is the case here. If the people were to force this project to referendum again, the ballot language would be questioning how the project is to be financed, not the project itself.
The people didn’t support the project in 2017 for a number of reasons. Pouring money into an old building that is not historic or a thing of beauty was an issue. And the people were and still are paying off the debt to renovate the funeral parlor—about $45,000 is still owed. But the biggest reason was the revenue source to be tapped to pay off the debt.
Then and now the project will be funded by the .25 percent gross receipts tax the people, once again, approved at the polls to be used for police salaries and retention. Patrick Gallagher was chief of police in 2012 and gave brilliant, written, evidence-based arguments for the tax. He explained how the city’s officer churn rate was caused by low pay that resulted in attracting non-certified officers who left after becoming certified. The force was reactive, not proactive, and public safety and community relations would improve if the tax passed. It did. But the city raided those funds, just as it has raided cash from the utility funds, making the city commissioners’ “support” of the PD just noise.
Last year the city commission took about $800,000 out of the PD’s .25 GRT fund to balance the budget. A few years before the city commission “borrowed” about $300,000, or perhaps more, the amount was never divulged, to fund the animal shelter. Those are two instances I know of, only because I scrutinize the budget documents.
And now, once again, the money will not be used for salaries and retention, but for a police building.
If the PD is short staffed now, it’s because these funds have been raided.
Hechler said the fund had been used to purchase police vehicles, which also forced the PD not to use the money for salaries and retention. Forrister said the police “will have to do without” for a while to pay for the police building.
Does this sound like good governance with public safety in mind? Does this sound like a city commission that respects the people’s vote to tax themselves to provide good salaries and retention of officers?