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Housing deal with former Santa Fe animal shelter director draws scrutiny

September 24, 2018

In January 2012, the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society purchased a 3,600-square-foot home with four bedrooms and five bathrooms in the upper Casa Solana neighborhood on the city’s west side.

The house and guesthouse sit on nearly a half-acre. There are mountain views from the patio.

The shelter spent $545,000 on the home, which the organization’s current executive director said was an effort to retain the woman who previously held the position.

Mary Martin, the executive director of the Santa Fe animal shelter from 2009 to 2016, lived rent-free in the Casa Solana house for four-plus years.

A Phoenix native with three decades of experience in the animal welfare industry, including a few years leading nonprofits in New York and Los Angeles, Martin oversaw expansion of the shelter’s massive, $10.2 million campus on Caja del Rio Road.

When she left Santa Fe in October 2016 to take a job in Phoenix, the shelter sold her the house for $500,000. It also loaned her $50,000 on an unsecured note to help her make the purchase.

An appraisal of the property prior to the sale said the market value of the home was $510,000. It wasn’t offered for public sale.

In 2015, her last full year as executive director of the Santa Fe shelter, Martin’s compensation and other benefits totaled nearly $188,000 — excluding the value of the rent-free residence, according to the shelter’s publicly available federal tax returns.

The shelter, at the direction of its board of directors, purchased the home for Martin at a time when the nonprofit had plenty of money, in large part due to a bequest of millions of dollars from former fashion designer Bert Coughlin. In recent years, the shelter has been using money from that bequest to help cover operating losses.

Two members of the shelter’s board of directors resigned in June, citing the organization’s operating losses and what they characterized as questionable business deals between the shelter and some board members at the time, including Martin.

The former board members also had raised concerns about the transfer of some Coughlin property just off Canyon Road to a neighbor who was then president of the shelter board, and the hiring of a board member as the architect for the shelter’s veterinary hospital and animal behavior center.

Shelter officials said they conducted an investigation into the concerns after the former board members raised them and found nothing improper.

Martin, in a recent interview, said her perception was that the shelter’s board of directors approved the purchase of the home as a property investment because other types of investment weren’t doing well at the time.

The shelter’s financial statements, prepared by outside accountants, also say the shelter bought the home for “investment purposes.” But the shelter’s investment policy, revised just a few months before the home purchase, prohibits real estate investments.

Jennifer Steketee, who succeeded Martin as the shelter’s executive director, said the wording of the financial statements was “unfortunate” and that the house was a tool to try to retain Martin.

Martin was hired as the Santa Fe shelter’s executive director in 2009, just after it had moved to Caja del Rio from an aged building on Cerrillos Road; the board approved the home purchase for her at a meeting in October 2011.

Minutes of the meeting show Roddey Burdine, then the board president, raised the issue of buying a home for the executive director. He said the “question of housing has been posed many times by applicants, the problem being that, especially in a poor economy, applicants may not be able to buy a house or sell a house where they currently live,” according to the minutes.

The minutes don’t include a breakdown on how each board member voted.

Martin said she was thrilled to have the house as a “salary perk” but didn’t request it.

The board approved the purchase, provided the house be in town, have a large backyard and cost no more than $500,000.

At a board meeting in January 2012, Burdine announced a house had been bought for the executive director, but minutes don’t show he told the board the price had exceeded $500,000.

Steketee said there was a consensus among board members that the house could be purchased for $545,000 because it had a guesthouse that could be used by shelter visitors from out of town and a large room that could be used for storage by the shelter.

The shelter advised the IRS that Martin was living rent-free in a shelter-owned home. It set the value of the house benefit for tax purposes at $20,000 a year — an amount that didn’t change over the years Martin lived on the property.

Bill Synnamon, the treasurer of the shelter’s board of directors, said he didn’t believe the rent-free house for Martin was “terribly out of the ordinary” for an animal shelter executive.

“Santa Fe is not a challenge-free residential market, as you can see from our police force,” he said, referring to recent reports about the city’s concerns over retaining officers against the backdrop of the city’s tight — and expensive — housing scene.

Jim Tedford, the head of a national group that examines compensation for animal welfare executives, said that in nearly 35 years in the field, he has heard of only a handful of cases in which free housing was provided for a shelter official.

Martin guided the Santa Fe shelter through the expansion of its 100-acre Caja del Rio campus, including construction of the vet hospital and behavior center, and launched the facility on its way to obtaining its “no-kill” status for euthanizing only those animals with severe medical or behavioral issues.

“She put us on the national map,” said Jan Ballew, president of the shelter board.

Eventually, however, not even the housing perk could keep Martin in Santa Fe; she left to become director of animal care and control services for Maricopa County in Arizona, which encompasses the Phoenix metro area. She earns nearly $171,000 in the position, according to the county.

Martin said she purchased the Casa Solana home because she plans to return to Santa Fe when she retires.

If the shelter had chosen to put the house on the market, Steketee said, it would have had to deal with needed maintenance and paid fees to real estate brokers upon the sale.

The $500,000 sale price to Martin “seemed like a screaming deal,” she said.

The shelter board hasn’t provided Steketee with a rent-free home. A veterinarian, she worked for the shelter prior to being selected executive director in 2016 and said she already had a home.

Steketee said her annual salary is $125,000.

In an email about the house, she said: “The Santa Fe Animal Shelter purchased this property to help with employee retention, and when there was a change of Executive Directors the board decided it did not want to be in the rental business.”

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