Santa Fe City Council approves up to $80 million in bonds to build retirement center

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An estimated $80 million project that promises to create more than 1,000 temporary construction jobs is closer to reality after Santa Fe, N.M., Mayor Alan Webber and a City Council majority agreed Wednesday to lend the city's name to a bond financing deal.

The governing body voted 6-3 to issue up to $80 million in tax-exempt industrial revenue bonds to help finance the construction of a new 68-unit independent living facility that Santa Fe-based El Castillo Retirement Residences plans to build on a vacant lot at Old Taos Highway and Paseo de Peralta. The site of the proposed facility is about a half-mile from El Castillo's existing 186-unit residential retirement community on East Alameda Street downtown.

Three of the four city councilors who are Santa Fe natives — Chris Rivera, Renee Villarreal and JoAnne Vigil Coppler — voted against issuing the bonds for El Castillo, which Vigil Coppler has called "the country club of assisted living centers."

Villarreal said she was concerned about the loss of property taxes on a project that will only generate between 17 and 22 permanent jobs.

"I don't see the balance right now, and that's what I'm struggling with, especially for the fact that we're losing on property taxes," she said.

But City Councilor Signe Lindell, who sponsored the ordinance to issue the bonds, said the property hasn't been generating any taxes for decades.

"The truth of the matter is that this property, for 50 years, hasn't generated one penny of property tax," she said. "It's been owned by a church."

Villarreal also said she is troubled that El Castillo doesn't accept Medicaid tenants and that officials there said it won't be feasible to include units for low-income people in the new retirement complex.

"I have a hard time with that, especially when I think about my great tio, who lived in Casa Real [nursing home], which is the only place in this city that accepts low-income, and he died there because they don't have the kind of service that you all have," she said, crying.

Rivera questioned the entrance fee to live at El Castillo, which the CEO said ranges from $98,000 to about $420,000.

"The fact that there's no willingness, I guess, to take Medicare or Medicaid or to provide some type of affordability on units, I can't support this," he said. "This really does segregate by income."

Vigil Coppler, who raised a long list of concerns, said El Castillo was in a financial position to do the project on its own.

"I don't have any doubt that this facility will be built because according to what I've read [about El Castillo], there is money there to build it," she said. "Now, do I fault you for coming to the city for free money? No, I don't fault you. If you don't ask, you don't get."

Webber said the proposal met the city's criteria for issuing industrial revenue bonds.

"I think it is essential for us as a governing body not only to apply our criteria in a consistent manner so that in the future other applicants will feel that they are facing a fair and equitable treatment, but that also we're sending a signal that the city government wishes to work constructively with organizations that want to do more development for the benefit of our community," the mayor said. "We're not evaluating the business model here. We're evaluating whether or not it conforms with our policy."

The city's Office for Business Growth had recommended approval of the deal in which the city lends its name but bears no financial responsibility.

"The [bond-funded] project is projected to provide a stimulus in construction and direct jobs in Santa Fe's historic district, support the creation of healthcare industry jobs, and respond to an emerging need to serve Santa Fe's aging population," Fabian Trujillo, manager of the Office for Business Growth, wrote in a memo.

The council's decision came after a public hearing and discussion that lasted nearly two hours. While council chambers were packed with supporters, many of them current or prospective El Castillo residents, the public hearing drew only seven speakers.

Among them was 89-year-old Richard Tchon, who said he and his wife have lived at El Castillo for 13 years. Tchon, who retired from the U.S. Army, said it's untrue that only wealthy people live at El Castillo.

"I grew up during the Great Depression like many of my friends, and I learned the lessons of economics that our wants are infinite but our needs are finite," he said. "My wife and I, we put aside money for a rainy day. We also put aside money for our retirement, and we earned it the old fashioned way -- one dollar at a time. ...We're not a bunch of old fat cats."

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Infrastructure New Mexico