Albuquerque cannot be just a cop on every corner, a fire truck on every street, a jail in every quadrant, a garbage dumpster at every turn, streets without potholes and buses like ART that no one will ever use. Any truly great city must include facilities that enhance the quality of life of its citizens, such as libraries, zoos, museums and aquariums, facilities that the ABQ Biopark represents.
The BioPark, with its zoo, aquarium and botanical gardens, is the number one tourist attraction in the State of New Mexico. The Rio Grande Zoo has gone from rows of simple chain link fenced cages and bar cages in the 1970’s to state of the art open facilities in the present day. The entire BioPark with the zoo, aquarium and botanical gardens is one of the finest attractions of its kind in the country.
During the 2015 municipal election, Albuquerque voters wisely approved with an overwhelming majority the voter petition drive initiative to increase the gross receipts tax for the BioPark.The gross receipts tax initiative for the BioPark was needed because some $20 million dollars plus in repairs and maintenance to the facilities are needed and major repairs were ignored for eight years. There are $40 million dollars in upgrades and exhibits needed to the BioPark facilities and without making those repairs, the city risks losing many national certifications.
The BioPark attendance is down in numbers caused no doubt by the great recession and the BioPark American Zoological Association (AZA) accreditation has been threatened by it. Employees morale is down and turnover is up as a result in the steady decline of support from the past administration over eight (8) years.
The tax will raise $255 million dollars over 15 years for the BioPark. In passing the tax, voters decided to invest in their community and themselves and bypass the Mayor and the City Council.
Republican Mayor Berry and the Republican City Councilors opposed the tax at the time. A new ABQ BioPark Director was hired to implement the new and updated ABQ Bio Park master plan and guide capital improvements worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars over a 15-year period.
There have been a few reports on what is happening to the BioPark gross receipts tax funding such as the new penguin attraction that is under construction.
CITY FACING MAJOR DEFICITS
In 2018, the City is facing a $6 million deficit for this year, a $40 million dollar deficit for the next fiscal year, $69 million for the ART Bus project that must be found if the federal grant is not forthcoming, $40 million needed for the upgrade of the emergency operations center and communications center, the need for funding for 350 more police officers that the Mayor and city council want, replacement of the roughly 20% of police units and fire department units that is the average rate of replacement of older vehicles, not to mention the $25 million dollars lost because of repeal of the hold harmless provision.
There is also a need to generate revenues to address all the other city departments, vacancies and increases in salaries to those other city employees who have been given significantly less in salary increases, or no increases at all, for the last eight years while APD’s budget and salaries increased.
The Keller administration has already said all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with the deficit. For the last eight (8) years, the Albuquerque City Council strongly resisted raising the gross receipts tax at all costs despite the effect that budget cuts were having a severe impact on essential services and a disastrous effect on public safety.
For the last eight (8) years, there has been a severe downsizing of city hall personnel, the elimination of numerous positions, and no or very little raises for city hall employees and even a time when pay was cut to make up for deficits to avoid any kind of tax increase.
TAX INCREASE INTRODUCED
Mayor Tim Keller is due to announce his first budget on April 1, 2018 which will then be enacted by the city council effective July 1, 2018 after city council budget hearings.
On February 17, 2018, City Councilors Ken Sanchez, a Democrat, and Trudy Jones, a Republican, announced that the city council will consider a tax increase saying the city was facing a budget shortfall and that the city needed more cops. In announcing the City Council’s proposed tax increase, City council President Ken said:
“We are at an extremely critical time. … Just this coming fiscal year, we are facing a $40 million shortfall. … Our police department staffing is facing some major deficiencies” and saying Albuquerque Police Department has around 850 officers and that 1,200 are needed.”
Sanchez also pointed out that the city has lost $25 million in revenue due to the state’s “hold harmless” agreement. After the legislature did away with state taxes on food and medicine in 2005, it agreed to pay local governments “hold harmless” money to ease the burden of the lost revenue with the money tapering off since 2016. The New Mexico Legislature allowed municipalities to impose a three-eighths percent gross receipts tax without a public vote, to make up for those losses from the hold harmless provision, which is what City Councilors Sanchez and Jones are proposing.
The gross receipts tax proposed of three eights of a cent and could potentially raise $22 million and upwards of $55 million. The overwhelming majority of the $55 million generated by the tax being proposed by the City Council will in all probability have to be applied to the $40 million-dollar projected deficit and other incurred debts with little left for public safety.
DIVERSION OF BIO PARK TAX TO MAKE UP FOR DEFICITS POLITICAL BAD FAITH AND BETRAYAL OF PUBLIC TRUST
Some city hall observers feel the Mayor and City Council should raid the Biopark Tax to balance the city halls budget. The Keller Administration and the City Council could divert money from the BioPark tax to make up for the deficits and any shortfall in the $120 million ART bus project if or when Congress does not approve the grant. The City Council and the Keller Administration could reduce the existing BioPark budget and divert that money to the ART Bus Project or the city deficits arguing the Bio Park gross receipts tax is available and other essential services such as public safety are far more important.
Albuquerque voters and the BioPark Society need to be vigilant and make sure that all the millions that are slated for the Bio Park generated by the gross receipts tax actually go to the Bio Park. If there is in fact a need to raise taxes for public safety, then the council should do it and not at the expense of the Biopark.
The Mayor and the City Council need to respect the wishes of voters when they enacted the BioPark tax by an overwhelming majority in 2015. The City Council and the Mayor have the ethical responsibility and the duty to the voters of Albuquerque to make sure that they resist any temptation to raid or rededicate the Biopark tax revenues to make up for the deficits they are now faced with in order to avoid a tax increase.