Dear AG: Is ABQ getting turf bang for buck in Rio Rancho?
For the Duke City Gladiators and their playing surface — and the city inspector general and now the state attorney general — it’s not so much whether the team wins or loses, but rather where it plays its home games.
In a rush to procure state funding for a new playing surface for the Indoor Football League team, the city of Albuquerque agreed in the spring of 2021 to be the fiscal agent for a state appropriation in which the city would put up its $74,000 as well as the state’s $160,000, the latter for which it would seek reimbursement.
Problem is, the team had already moved its 2021 home games from Tingley Coliseum to the Rio Rancho Events Center because of COVID-19 restrictions. So, in April 2022, now in possession of a swath of brand spanking new artificial turf big enough to cover a football field, the city decided to install it in Rio Rancho, rather than pay to put it in storage until the Gladiators return to the Duke City for which they’re named. Even though they should have known that broke the rules. A few months later the city sought reimbursement for the state’s chunk of funding, but the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration denied the request, saying the city violated the terms of the appropriation and, if it used the funds in the proposed manner (complete with the team’s logo emblazoned on the turf), it would also violate the state Constitution’s Anti-Donation Clause.
Multiple Albuquerque city councilors have questioned why Albuquerque would pay for equipment installed in another city. On Wednesday, City Councilor Louie Sanchez sent a letter to Attorney General Raúl Torrez, asking for an investigation, saying the turf purchase may have been an illegal contribution to campaign donors of Mayor Tim Keller. That’s a serious allegation.
City officials maintain that using the turf right away helped with economic development in the Metro area and made it available to youth athletes, whereas putting it in a warehouse would have incurred costs and provided no benefits. But the report from city Inspector General Melissa Santistevan casts doubt about whether the Gladiators and Global Spectrum — the private company that operates the Rio Rancho Events Center — were meeting the necessary terms. For taxpayers it means:
1. The best years of the turf’s 10- to 15-year lifespan will be in Rio Rancho, where the Gladiators will open their home schedule of their third season in Rio Rancho on April 1. City officials say the turf’s value depreciates between $20,000 and $24,000 a year.
2. The 50 free tickets the team gave the city for each of eight home games were handed out to city employees, questionable when the public has been led to believe they would go to lower-income youth.
3. The 14 so-called annual youth events on the field are also questionable as all but one are listed as “open practice” rather than youth camps with attendance records and Gladiator participation, and there are no specifics if Albuquerque youth practiced there or if the field was used primarily by club ball teams of higher-income youth.
4. The “valuable consideration” of having the OneAlbuquerque logo on the turf in Rio Rancho is hard to quantify without attendance records or any followup data.
A recent investigation by the IG’s Office found the city’s “rushed” purchase of the $236,622 turf violated the state Constitution because it “appears to be a donation/gift” to benefit the privately owned Gladiators. A city spokeswoman compares the purchase to other city Memorandums of Understanding regarding purchases of a track for the Lobos, netting for the Isotopes and turf for the United. But all those facilities are in Albuquerque, and in addition the Lobos are a state school team and the Isotopes have a monetary agreement with the city.
It also stings that the city bought the turf with bond money Albuquerque voters approved for turf playing fields at park and recreational facilities in Albuquerque, not a private sports franchise playing in Rio Rancho.
City leaders say they still expect the $160,000 state reimbursement — after the Gladiators return to Albuquerque and likely once they paint over the logo, but there’s no timeline for any of those.
Regardless of whether the AG investigates, reimbursement for and return of the turf need to happen sooner rather than later. A new field in Rio Rancho and years-old carpet in Albuquerque was not what voters were sold.