John B. Strong grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved to New Mexico in 1997. He started and Art Gallery in Santa Fe in 2000 that he now operates with his partner Carlos Acosta. John Strong has been investing in startups since 2004. He is a co-founder or board member at several different companies, mostly in technology, healthcare, and financial services. Mr. Strong was recently the Chairman of Scout Security, a company that was taken over from Kickstarter to an IPO and listing on the Sydney Stock Exchange. Mr. Strong describes himself as being “obsessed with entrepreneurship and small businesses.”
John B. Strong submitted the following guest column for publication:
“Most citizens of Albuquerque can at this point agree that the ART transportation project is a complete failure. It’s time now to assess what this really means for our city going forward, because it’s much more than just a failed capital works project. In addition to causing many business failures, job losses, and increases in both petty and violent crime along the Central Avenue corridor, it has caused a great deal of skepticism on the part of the electorate that our city leaders are capable of or deserving of our support in spending our money going forward. Let’s be clear, this is not just a onetime failure. So the real damage from a failed project of this type, where the citizens were deliberately not allowed a voice in this, is a complete loss of support for much needed capital projects going forward, because of a lack of trust in our elected oﬃcials.
I’ve had the good fortune to spend a lot of time in successful cities that have transformed blighted and struggling areas. Cities like Tulsa, OK, Oklahoma City, Denver, and Phoenix/ Scottsdale. One thing they all have in common is they jumpstarted urban renewal with a large capital project, like building the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa, or the Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City, or the municipal railway running through downtown Denver, or the River Area in downtown Scottsdale. In Tulsa the BOK Center sparked hundreds of millions of dollars of redevelopment in adjoining neighborhoods.
In Oklahoma City, the Chesapeake Arena and adjoining Bricktown continue to expand into previously blighted areas ﬁlling them with prosperous businesses, housing, recreation, culture, and the safety people need to be conﬁdent enough to move into those areas. Same thing in Denver, Phoenix, and Scottsdale. In fact big capital works projects in Tulsa and Oklahoma City have been so successful that voters continue to approve new ones. Why? Because each and every time the city leaders ask the voters to give them money they return a great project to them, that has real impact. And that is where the real damage from the failed ART project comes in.
How likely is it that Albuquerque voters will get fully behind a new or larger capital project such as the redevelopment of the rail yards, or maybe a downtown arena and convention center? These are the types of large projects that are needed to jumpstart the big redevelopments of critical areas of the city, and to reclaim our eroded tax base.
Another thing to consider is that none of the cities mentioned here solved diﬃcult crime problems by placing a police oﬃcer on every corner, which is little more than a bandaid, they did it by economic development in blighted areas, which is proven to crowd out crime. And that is the real damage caused by the failure of the ART project, that when we need a couple of over the top large transformational public projects, the public will not be able to trust our elected leaders to be good stewards of our money.”
John B Strong
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The words of John Strong are so true when he writes “It’s much more than just a failed capital works project … it has caused a great deal of skepticism on the part of the electorate that our city leaders are capable of or deserving of our support in spending our money going forward.” As was noted, the ART bus project was never put to a public vote for approval. Instead, ART was crammed down taxpayer’s throats by former Mayor Richard Berry and the Albuquerque City Council and this is how elected officials lose credibility with the voters and voters start to rebel by voting against projects regardless of need or justification and object to tax increases of any kind.
In February of this year, voters overwhelmingly voted NO to the Albuquerque Public Schools’ two mill levy and one proposed bond questions. The initiative was voted down that would have raised real property taxes by around 5%. Had all three initiatives passed, they would have generated $900 million for APS over six years to help implement the school district’s capital improvement master plan. The first failed ballot initiative, for $190 million, was to repair and maintain 142 aging APS schools. The biggest factors that contributed to the defeat of the three initiatives were the very real public perception that the elected APS board and the APS administration is wasting taxpayer money and resources on projects and facilities not helping students. APS has now announced that it will be placing on the November, 2019 ballot for a renewal of the property tax levy for repairs to the school districts aging facilities which is desperately needed by the school district.
A gross receipts tax increase that was not put to a public vote was last year’s public safety gross receipts tax. In 2017, then candidate for Mayor Tim Keller made the promise during a debate and in order to get elected that he would not increase taxes without of public vote. Just a few weeks after Tim Keller was sworn in as Mayor, the Keller Administration announced a $40 million dollar deficit. Soon after the deficit was announced, the Albuquerque City Council enacted a $50 million dollar a year gross receipts tax increase. With just 4 months into office Mayor Keller broke his promise to put tax increases on the ballot and signed the tax increase without a public vote. The problem is that the $40 million dollar deficit never materialized. (See: https://www.petedinelli.com/2018/03/02/breaking-a-promise-on-public-vote-for-tax-increase/)
What needs to be remembered is that in the not too distant past, Albuquerque voters did in fact vote YES to impose two separate tax increases on themselves to improve things in Albuquerque.
In 2014, Albuquerque and Bernalillo County voters overwhelmingly voted to impose a one-eighth percent gross receipts tax to improve access to mental and behavioral health care services in the county. The one-eighth percent gross receipts tax voted by taxpayers for mental health is now being used for the purpose of providing more mental and behavioral health services for adults and children in the Albuquerque and Bernalillo County area, and to provide a safety net system that develops mental health care not otherwise funded in New Mexico.
During the 2015 municipal election, Albuquerque voters wisely approved with an overwhelming majority the voter petition drive initiative to increase the gross receipts tax that will raise $255 million dollars over 15 years for the BioPark. The BioPark, with its zoo, aquarium and botanical gardens, is the number one tourist attraction in the State of New Mexico and in need of $20 million in repairs and $40 million in upgrades. Voters are now seeing the benefits of both taxes beginning first with the opening of transitional services and counseling services and second the opening of the new, state of the art penguin exhibit at the BioPark.
When John Strong asks the question ‘How likely is it that Albuquerque voters will get fully behind a new or larger capital project such as the redevelopment of the rail yards, or maybe a downtown arena and convention center?” it is likely we will find out in just a few months when on the November ballot there will be 2 major initiatives of capital improvement spending, one for the Albuquerque Public School System and the other for City of Albuquerque projects. Because of the actions of the former Mayor and current Mayor Tim Keller, as well as the actions of the Albquerque city council, there is a real possibility that voters will once again rebel and vote NO.
The Albuquerque City Council has approved the Keller Administration “2019 Decade Plan and General Obligation Bond Program”, which lists over $800 million worth of taxpayer-funded bond projects for the next 10 years. All the funding is not voted upon at once, but in increments every two years. The City Council will place $127 million of the projects on the November ballot for final voter approval.
Over $53 million in bonds will be on the November, 2019 ballot for spending on community facilities and includes:
• $13 million toward the historic Rail Yards property through 2029.
• $11 million for various projects at the Albuquerque Museum over the next decade.
• $7 million to a new APD southeast substation at Kathryn and San Mateo.
• $7 million for a year-round homeless facility.
• $5.5 million for the International District Library.
• $5 million in funding for Family & Community Services Section 8 Affordable Housing.
• $2.8 million for Community, Health, Social Services Centers.
• $2.5 million for a new exit off I-25 to Balloon Fiesta Park.
If both the APS extension of the property tax levy for school facility repairs maintenance and the City’s Capital Improvement bonds fail in November, you can probably attribute in part the losses to what John Strong called “the public not trusting our elected leaders to be good stewards of our money.” If both fail, it will be years before “over the top large transformational public projects” will be approved by voters. Such rejection could have been and can be avoided if the the former Mayor, the current Mayor and the Albuquerque City Council had more faith in voters and listen to the needs of their constituents.
You can review more blog articles on the ART Bus project at the following link: