It's Our Money, Spend It!
Mayor sits on public safety tax revenue
About a quarter of the $26 million raised by the city's voter-approved public safety tax was supposed to go toward preventing crime, helping kids before they get into trouble and giving a hand to victims of violence, abuse and addiction. The rest was tagged for police and firefighters.
The plan was spearheaded by City Councilor Eric Griego and Albuquerque taxpayers thought it made sense. For only the second time in memory they voted to raise their own taxes in order to provide more money for a comprehensive approach to public safety.
The police and firefighters got their money right away.
Mayor Marty Chavez stood in front of cameras with the police sergeant who had been shot by a mentally ill homeless man in Nob Hill and talked about the importance of treatment and prevention. A committee composed of representatives for the mayor, city council and prevention and treatment professionals set specific amounts for specific programs.
That was almost a year ago.
Mayor Chavez' administration has been sitting on the money since then. City Hall has written only five contracts, and those were delivered to the City Council for approval just this month. The Council agreed it was well past time to put the money to work. They approved the contracts in less time than it takes to hear Geraldine Amato report the latest crimes of the international banking conspiracy.
Virtually none of the funds have been put to work. Approximately $5 million is sitting around not doing anyone any good, including funds earmarked long ago for early intervention programs for children and adolescents.
Early intervention was the idea. Not whenever City Hall gets around to it.
Early intervention delayed is early intervention denied. You don't need a degree in social work to understand that much.
What's behind the foot dragging? Something like: If we miss this year's troubled kids, there's another crop right behind? Or: Not to worry, we'll get them when they're arrested?
Maybe it's shortcomings—a forgiving, tactful phrase—in the job performance of patronage employees the mayor put in charge of managing these funds.
Or perhaps Mayor Chavez, no stranger to holding a grudge, is loath to distribute funds to programs run by some of his political opponents.
Then there's the fact that Mayor Chavez was never very fond of the quarter cent tax. He fell in line only when it became obvious the proposal enjoyed such broad support he would be isolated unless he changed positions. But his opinion doesn't matter. The taxpayers have told him what to do. Last I checked, he supposedly worked for us.
Then, again, it may come down to the fact the public safety tax effort was led by Councilor Griego, who has announced he would like to try doing Marty's job. But holding up popular programs doesn't make sense if you want to get re-elected. It gives your opponent something to use against you. It lets Eric Griego say things like this: "The mayor's always quick to get kids when they screw up. But he doesn't want to invest in kids at the front end to keep them out of trouble. These contracts should have been out the door months ago. The money should be put to use helping people, as taxpayers intended."
That was what Griego had to say this week. If the money continues to sit idle, his words are going to get sharper, with good reason.
So, let's say Marty scrambles to get all that money out the door. By the time he has contracts approved and mails the checks, we will be even closer to the end of the fiscal year, which comes in June. Burning money just to get rid of it never looks good. Mistakes are bound to happen, maybe very bad mistakes. Marty could have more uncomfortable explaining ahead.
Whatever the excuse—incompetence or peevish politics—it doesn't matter to kids who needed help months ago, or battered and abused women, or people struggling with addictions or seeking shelter so they are not defenseless in the dark of night.
I don't like paying taxes. Who does? But when reluctant taxpayers decide something is so important we want to be taxed, damn it all, the money should be spent where it is supposed to be spent in time to do some good.
We'll never know what opportunities to make a positive difference have been blown. Those chances may be lost forever. Mayor Chavez shouldn't forget that voters still have another chance to make a difference, just like when we voted for the public safety tax in the first place.
The next chance to vote for mayor comes Oct. 4. But you don't have to wait until Election Day. You can vote a month sooner by mail. Consider it early intervention.
Scarantino is an Albuquerque attorney and served recently as president of Mainstream 2004, a national organization of moderate Republicans.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.