Sunland Park care center battles city over use of buildings

  • New Mexico Family Services is a private company providing a range of community services.
  • The NMFS settled a lawsuit against the city in 2016 over the lease terms of two buildings.
  • On June 15, a district court judge ruled in favor of the city, ordering the NMFS to leave and repay the rent.

SUNLAND PARK — Lourdes Torres stood in front of a cinderblock office building with a replica electric guitar adorning its facade, and declared victory in her latest skirmish with the city on Monday morning.

For several years, the building has housed NM Family Services, a community care center offering a range of services. Earlier this month, a court ordered them to leave and pay the city rent, but Torres said she appealed the judge’s writ seeking a temporary restraining order, avoiding eviction for the moment.

According to state records, NM Family Services, LLC was founded in 2014. It leased two city-owned locations on McNutt Road where it provided community services, including meal service, as well as medical and behavioral health through licensed contractors.

Besides the “guitar building” on McNutt Road, NMFS rented the Senior Citizen Center next to City Hall, where Torres said meals were served.

In 2016, Torres sued the city for breach of contract, claiming the city’s maintenance of buildings prevented the company from obtaining the state licenses required for its operations. She also alleged in court that Isabel Santos, who was a member of the city council at the time, actively interfered with NMFS’s efforts to establish its services for the elderly.

New Mexico Family Services Director Lourdes Torres speaks to the Las Cruces City Council during an online business session July 27, 2020. Torres offered to expand pick-up and delivery services meals from the NMFS in Las Cruces.

The case was settled after being returned to federal court in 2016; but four years later, Torres sued the city again, alleging violations of its $200,000 settlement that involved poor building maintenance and alleged bad faith on the part of the city.

Torres claims the city’s actions were aimed at preventing him from obtaining the required licenses and financing.

The city said the NMFS made unauthorized modifications to a bathroom and built a partition for an office. The city said the partition did not meet construction standards and sought to restore the bathroom to its original design, saying the project was part of an effort to create an unlicensed daycare center.

In 2019, the New Mexico Department of Children, Youth, and Families issued a cease and desist letter to NMFS for providing child care to approximately 18 unlicensed children. Court records show Torres refused to sign the letter, and she told the Las Cruces Sun-News the letter arose from a false complaint.

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City Council members Alberto Jaramillo and Jeffrey Cox declined to comment on the case, as it is currently the subject of litigation. Mayor Javier Perea, City Manager Michael Martinez and the city’s Community Services Department did not respond to questions Monday.

Torres says the city maliciously denied business licenses to his company and used it as a basis to evict the NMFS. The city maintains in legal documents that the NMFS has not had an active business license since 2018.

“They are sabotaging my ability to extend my lease,” she said Monday.

Under the amended lease agreements, NMFS leased each property for $100 per year, with an option to renew annually for three years at a fair market rate when the leases expired in 2021, provided NMFS met certain conditions, including the maintenance of a community center for the elderly.

The Sunland Park Senior Citizen Center, located next to City Hall, is leased by New Mexico Family Services.  It was empty on Monday afternoon June 27, 2022.

The city claims in court filings that the NMFS failed to meet its obligations. He said the NMFS failed to operate the senior center and instead provided unlicensed child care and made unauthorized modifications to the two buildings while operating without a business license from the city.

In January, Torres asked the city to renew each lease for five years at the same $100 annual rent. In court, the city filed a copy of a Feb. 17 memo denying the request and asking the NMFS to leave when the current leases expire. This was followed by three day notices in April and May for each property.

The city asked Third Judicial District Judge Manuel Arrieta for summary judgment to evict the NMFS. On June 15, he granted their motion, finding that NMFS had breached its lease and denying a claim by Torres that the city had agreed to exchange rent for in-kind services. He ordered the NMFS to vacate both buildings and pay the city $92,706.69 in back rent.

Torres insisted Monday that his settlement agreement with the city allowed for an indefinite lease and in-kind services instead of rent, and pledged to take his case to court.

Last Friday, she said she received a notice that the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office would come Monday morning to evict her. A few patients and staff demonstrated with signs outside City Hall on behalf of NMFS in response to the news.

After filing an appeal and request for a temporary restraining order to stop the execution, Torres said patients scheduled to receive psychiatric services on Monday were postponed to spare them a potentially stressful scene. However, no sheriff’s deputy was present at the building Monday morning.

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“I’m so sick of it,” Torres said of the long-running dispute with City; yet maintaining the location was worth it, she said, for continuity of services and access to public transportation.

Without a business license, she said the NMFS was not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements and her company absorbed the costs of the service. When asked how the business survived under these circumstances, she replied, “There is a greater god up there” and declined to elaborate on the funding for the center.

Torres said NMFS serves about 10,000 customers.

In 2020, she told the Las Cruces City Council that the NMFS takes referrals from many vendors and maintains offices in Las Cruces and Alamogordo as well as Sunland Park. She addressed the council during a working session to discuss a possible collaboration with the city to prepare and distribute meals locally and lead cooking classes.

On Monday, the Las Cruces Quality of Life Department said it was currently working with another provider.

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.