The Patriots, Redmans and Palm Harbors have sat on foundations at parks and other government-owned land across Santa Fe for decades.
Inside the mobile homes, government employees, their spouses and children go about their business like any other family. They pay the county property taxes and cut checks to utility companies to keep the water flowing and the heat burning.
But there’s a catch: The government workers pay below-market, or in some cases, no rent at all, in exchange for conducting caretaking duties of the public property.
Meet the park police.
John Schaerfl, a deputy chief of the Santa Fe Police Department, has been living in Ashbaugh Park since 2002. After both SFR and The Santa Fe New Mexican formally sought leases the city has with workers who live on park land, the daily paper broke the story last week.
SFR learned late Tuesday that four city workers, including two other cops, have similar agreements.
Schaerfl—whose annual salary is over $99,000—is paying about $20 in monthly rent as he watches for crime at the Cerrillos Road park.
City officials now say they plan to reevaluate a policy that has a veteran SFPD official paying below-market rent.
Just next door to the Schaerfls’ is another mobile home on city land. County officials say the home belongs to Leroy and Sonia Apodaca. Leroy Apodaca worked for the city for years—but the Human Resources Department says he retired as a parks supervisor in 2011.
City spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis Porter tells SFR that the home is now occupied by Jason Archuleta, who works at the Buckman Direct Diversion project. Like all city workers living on city land, Porter says that Archuleta pays a small amount of rent (in his case also $20), and the difference between that and the value of the market rate for rent is reported on payroll slips as a “taxable benefit.”
Three of the city workers live in mobile homes they privately own while a fourth, policeman Bryan Hidalgo, lives in a struture the city owns and pays about $184 a month in rent.
And it’s not just the city that makes such deals.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia says the county arrangements with deputies have been in place for years. Currently, at least two deputies live on county properties. Having a marked law-enforcement vehicle in a park helps maintain the peace, he says.
“I do feel that it helps prevent vandalism or crime in general,” Garcia says. “It can be a helpful tool.”
One sheriff’s deputy lives at Agua Fria Park, the stretch of land between Veterans Memorial Highway and the Santa Fe River. On one side of a barbed wire fence, trucks access a dirt road that leads to a county maintenance yard used for storage.
On the other side, county sheriff’s vehicles sit in front of a Patriot mobile home. On a recent Sunday, the deputy who lives there fries steaks while he recalls the problems he says he has helped resolve by living in the home—from helping catch thieves to catching water leaks.
SFR complied with the deputy’s request to withhold his name because he doesn’t want the criminals he interacts with to know where he lives. He says he bought the trailer home from another county sheriff’s deputy who lived there before retirement.
The deputy, 26, has been on the force for seven years. He currently makes at least $25.80 an hour. He lives rent-free but pays utilities in exchange for caretaking duties, and he says that gives him and his family a good financial cushion to be able to afford to buy a home someday.
In October, the county commission unanimously voted to extend the deputy’s lease on the property for four years, records show, along with two other caretaking agreements—one with Alan Vigil, who has a four-year agreement until October 2017 at a county property at 2600 Galisteo Street. Vigil, a county employee since 1985, is a work-zone coordinator in the Public Works Department and makes $19.77 an hour.
Commissioners also approved an agreement with a Los Alamos Medical Center employee, Julie Medina, to provide caretaking services at a county facility formerly used by Presbyterian, off Juan Medina Road in Chimayó. A spokeswoman says the county has similar caretaking agreements on other property with state employees, including a New Mexico Department of Transportation employee and State Police officer.
Noting that it was difficult to find an affordable place to live in Santa Fe after joining the force, the deputy tells SFR he’ll consider selling the mobile home to a younger officer after his current four-year lease expires in October 2017.
“I could say for me it helps out—it’s a big help,” he says. “It creates like a good environment with our neighbors and stuff like that. Because, I mean, I don’t know how many times we’ve had people come and [say], ‘Hey, there’s people that have been using drugs at the park. Can you help us out with this?’”
City officials have similarly justified the living arrangements by saying the employees help protect parks from vandalism and other crimes. SFPD spokeswoman Celina Westervelt shared records with SFR that show 14 calls for service to Ashbaugh Park, where Schaefrl lives, in December 2013 alone.
“He’s made 35 calls to dispatch since April 1, 2013, to present,” she writes. “These are also after hours as a service to the neighborhood.”
Calls include suspicious people, disorderly conduct, animals running at large, animal attacks, minor sex offenses—such as juveniles making out in cars—and suspicious vehicles, writes Westervelt.
A 2007 Santa Fe City Council resolution calls for caretaker housing for city workers as a part of the city’s parks and open-trails master plan, noting that the city “has experienced unfortunate incidents that have made the city parks increasingly unsafe, and therefore underutilized by families, children and senior citizens.”
“This has been a practice that has been exercised for over a decade at the City of Santa Fe to provide a public safety presence in parks,” Porter says. “The recent media attention is an opportunity to examine and evaluate the procedures and criteria.”