No good deed goes unpunished
St. Mary’s Hospital and Mesa County commissioners are at loggerheads over the county’s role in supporting a nonprofit that provides a critical public service.
The controversy stems from the county-owned building at 551 Chipeta Ave., which houses the Gray Gourmet program. It’s how the building came into existence that has fueled criticism of the county’s move to charge market-rate rent for the facility — a sharp departure from a tradition of letting Gray Gourmet use the space at a deep discount.
It was built with state grants, Area Agency on Aging funds and contributions from local citizens, businesses and foundations for the specific purpose of providing senior nutrition services, according to Sharon Meiklejohn, Gray Gourmet’s former director who was at the helm or the organization when the community rallied around the building. At that time, the county was Gray Gourmet’s sponsor.
In 1989, the county cited financial reasons for relinquishing its sponsorship, but it retained title to the building. That’s when St. Mary’s stepped in to take over the struggling program. For years the county charged nominal rent — somewhere between $20 and $100 a month — according to Gray Gourmet staff.
Essentially, the county was showing some appreciation for the value of the services Gray Gourmet provides by donating the space, Meiklejohn said.
Gray Gourmet provides low-cost meals to senior citizens and operates a “meals on wheels” program to deliver meals to elderly shut-ins. It operates on an $870,000 annual budget.
Coming up with $40,000 to $50,000 in market-rate rent means the organization has to make up those costs through additional fundraising if it wants to continue to provide 120,000 meals a year.
The last of the lease agreements with a discounted rate expired in June. The months leading up to that point is where the story gets a little fuzzy.
Some of the outrage stems from the idea that the county solicited a new tenant for the building without telling St. Mary’s first. If that were true, it would mean the county was attempting to repurpose a building with a well-established use — kicking a nonprofit to the curb and generating new revenues in the process.
Commissioner Scott McInnis says that’s not the case and that he has a “paper trail” to prove it, if necessary. The county only began looking for a replacement tenant when St. Mary’s Hopsital President Brian Davidson indicated the organization was looking for a new home — after McInnis broached the subject of market-rate rent. The replacement tenant fell through, providing a reprieve for Gray Gourmet. But the market rate “problem” remains.
“It’s not a question of money,” Davidson told commissioners last week. It’s about demanding money from those who are expending a great deal of it trying to the fill gaps that limited government resources can’t. St. Mary’s has spent “well over seven figures” on staff and building maintenance, he said.
The county has a fiduciary responsibility to charge more than $25 a month for the building, McInnis said. Last year the county put $52,000 into the building and has averaged between $8,000 and $13,000 in maintenance costs for the last several years. A county “in fiscal crisis” simply can’t afford to lease space at less than market rates, he added — especially to a nonprofit that has “access to federal money” and a sponsor with a healthy bottom line.
Mieklejohn thinks title to the building should be transferred with the sponsor. McInnis questions whether that’s a legal viability, but it raises questions about acting in the taxpayers’ best interest.
Let’s say the county gave St. Mary’s the building and then Gray Gourmet had an opportunity to move to a better space at no cost to the organization. Now the empty building is an asset in private hands when it could have remained the county’s to assist another nonprofit or generate revenue. There’s probably legal language that could convey the building back to the county under certain circumstances, but that conversation has to start with commissioners clarifying their position on the use of certain kinds of buildings.
Clifton Hall and the Mesa Community Center are other single-purpose buildings owned by the county. They were built with severance tax monies disbursed through the Department of Local Affairs. Should users of those facilities fear paying higher rent or see the buildings coverted to other uses?
McInnis says this all boils down to having a civil conversation about sharing the costs of serving the community. Both sides seem to feel they’ve given til it hurts. For the sake of the senior citizens who depend on Gray Gourmet, let’s hope that this “dialogue” didn’t do irreparable harm.