Truth or Consequences City Manager Morris Madrid, out of the public eye and without city commission approval, has initiated planning for a six-block development that will form a second city center, shifting focus and revitalization efforts away from downtown.
Madrid presented conceptual plans for redeveloping Third Street behind the Civic Center auditorium to city commissioners at their Dec. 16 meeting, during the discussion of what capital outlay requests the city should put before state legislators the following day. (For more information about priorities set forth for possible funding by T or C and other Sierra County governmental entities at the Dec. 17 convocation with the legislators, see related article linked below.)
The packet provided to the city commission and the public on the Friday before the Wednesday commission meeting contained a one-line memo from Grants Coordinator Traci Alvarez indicating the city’s capital outlay requests would be the same priorities as listed in the Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan that the commissioners adopted Aug. 26.
In a surprise move, Madrid gave city commissioners a 20-page document during the meeting that described a “multigenerational center” as his recommended top capital outlay project. Complete with an aerial view of the redevelopment site and architectural renderings of some of the campus’s proposed new government buildings and amenities ranging from shops to an indoor swimming pool, the document had been prepared at an undisclosed cost by Wilson & Company, the city’s on-call engineering firm.
The city commissioners made no comment on Madrid’s decision to introduce a new capital outlay priority that had not been laid out in the ICIP, a planning document required by the state to ensure governmental entities do not waste public funds on unnecessary or unwanted projects.
Although the ICIP is supposed to be based on master planning and solid engineering studies that have been presented to the public and city commission, no such presentations or hearings were held to vet this year’s ICIP.
Instead, Alvarez presented the city staff’s recommended top five ICIP projects at the commission’s Aug. 26 meeting, supplying brief descriptions of each. Although lacking need assessments as well as project specifics, the commissioners determined each project’s ranking.
The Sun’s Inspection of Public Records Act request for the ICIP and Madrid’s capital outlay recommendations revealed that, on the ICIP, the “SJOA Multi-generational Campus” is ranked seventh. The Sierra Joint Office on Aging was identified as the project’s leader, not the city. And the purpose, endorsed by the commissioners for capital outlay funding, was the improvement of kitchen facilities and senior-activities meeting rooms.
The ICIP estimated the total cost of the SOJA project at $7,405,000, with $160,000 to be expended in 2022 for planning; $3,500,000 in 2023 for Phase 1 construction and $3,745,000 in 2024 for Phase 2 construction.
Madrid’s capital outlay request document identified the city as the leader of the “multigenerational campus” project and asked for capital outlay monies a year earlier, in 2021. The requested amount of $5.5 million would fund Phase 1 construction of an indoor swimming pool. Madrid said the total cost of the campus would be about $12 million during his Dec. 17 presentation to state legislators.
He also revealed that the idea came to him while he was investigating how to provide year-round use of the current city pool, where it has been determined that the surrounding ground will not support the weight of a permanent hard cover.
Madrid hired Wilson & Company to flesh out his “idea,” without seeking approval from the city commission. The company prepared full-blown conceptual plans for a complex comprised of a new city hall, senior center, convention center, recreation center, amphitheater, library wing, business incubator and city services center, as well as customer-oriented business such as shops and eateries. All are to be housed in low-slung modern, glass-brick-and-stucco buildings reminiscent of a corporate business complex in the suburbs.
Madrid’s estimate of $12 million seems low for the scale of the proposed construction, which includes tearing up existing parking lots, constructing lots in new locations and removing paving from two blocks of Third Street that are to be incorporated into the campus.
The Civic Center is not pictured in the plans, and the buildings intended to replace the existing city commission chambers and the SJOA meal site bear no resemblance to the existing structures, meaning they are either to be torn down or so transformed as to obliterate their historic architectural and social importance. None of the present city buildings is on the National Register of Historic Places, although some would likely qualify.
At the Dec. 16 commission meeting, City Commissioner Frances Luna said the plans were “beautiful, but it will never happen,” because the proposed site suffers from some of the worst drainage problems in the city and regularly floods during rains.
Luna reminded Madrid that, at a prior meeting, she had instructed him to hold town halls on the construction of an indoor swimming pool. Some years ago the Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools and the city were to collaborate on the construction of a pool, Luna had informed Madrid a few months ago, but the “city pulled out” of the project. Because plans for that pool still exist, Luna instructed Madrid to resurrect them instead of paying for new engineering studies.
Luna also reminded Madrid he was to hold a town hall on the city’s untapped gross receipts taxes as a possible funding source for the pool project, “so city commissioners can talk about this.” She added: “I don’t know why we can’t get these things done so we can be of service to the public.”
During the capital outlay discussion, both Luna and Mayor Pro Tem Amanda Forrister told Madrid that “utility infrastructure comes first,” but neither they nor their fellow commissioners did much to change the priorities Madrid proposed to present to state legislators for funding. The multigenerational campus simply moved from first to third place on Madrid’s three-item capital outlay priorities list.
During his presentation to legislators on Dec. 17, Madrid primarily concentrated on the new campus.
If city commissioners had insisted T or C’s capital outlay requests adhere to the ICIP they approved in August, “water infrastructure and fire hydrant replacement,” with a total project cost of $55 million, would have been the top priority. Madrid did not present it to the legislators.
Madrid did not violate city or state procurement codes by hiring Wilson & Company to work on the campus project on his own authority. The city commission’s financial policy essentially follows state procurement code. State procurement code does not subject professional services, such as engineering services, to competitive bidding or pricing constraints. The city may also award professional services to firms under state contract, meaning the state has prequalified the firms. Wilson & Company is under state contract.
The T or C city manager has significant autonomy when it comes to all expenditures.The city commission’s financial policy does not impose a spending cap on a city manager’s purchases.
Under the city commission’s financial policy, any purchase may be signed for by any two of the following persons: city manager, city clerk, finance director, mayor and mayor pro tem. Therefore, the city manager and/or staff may make a purchase of any amount, unless approval is specifically required by ordinance, without having to present that expenditure to the city commission or the public. Madrid undertook the Ralph Edwards Park renovation project, for example, on his own authority.
The “grant accounting and control” portion of the city commission’s financial policy states a “formal discussion of the grant proposal is presented to the mayor and commissioners” by staff before the city can proceed with a grant application. Whether this policy applies to capital outlay monies—a sort of state grant—is unclear. Madrid was likely acting within the scope of his authority in initiating planning for a multimillion redevelopment project that would transform the town without consulting the city commission or the public about the project’s feasibility or desirability.