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 V.15 No.32 | August 10 - 16, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

In the Balance

Weighing the Quality of Life tax

To hear some voices on the subject, raising the county Gross Receipts Tax 3/16 of a cent for “quality of life” projects is the moral equivalent of invasion, treason or both.

Our city’s largest daily newspaper editorialized against the effort last Sunday in the decidedly breathless and predictably urgent tones of Paul Revere sounding the alarm about the Redcoats’ arrival. Guys, calm down a little. Get a grip.

The sky won’t fall in around our ears if this modest increase passes any more than it did with the last two increases that also drew your editorial fire, even though in both instances, the voters wound up giving their approval to Jim Baca’s road repair and construction tax, and Marty Chavez’ public safety tax.

The proposed Quality of Life tax increase is a measure made possible by action of the 2005 Legislature but would only take effect if county voters approve it, unlike the other Gross Receipts Tax increases that will probably be enacted this year by the county, one for the jail operations and the other to pay for indigent care at UNM Hospital.

Even if all three proposed tax increases before the commission for action are implemented, the total hit on us for Gross Receipts Taxes here would be less than that already in place in Las Cruces, Farmington and Santa Fe.

Whatever decision the county commissioners reach on whether to include this Quality of Life tax on the November general election ballot, the very fact that it is even being considered raises crucial questions: What amenities make a city “livable”? Are those amenities important for government to provide? How should they be financed?

The first issue essentially deals with why Albuquerque is almost universally considered to be a city but Rio Rancho isn’t (yet).

A study of nonprofit organizations in New Mexico found that more than 1,000 such groups with annual budgets upward of $50,000 exist in the state today. Albuquerque has less than one-fourth the entire population of New Mexico more than over half of the nonprofits are housed here.

Rio Rancho, which likes to think of itself as a bona fide challenger to its older, larger neighbor, has only nine nonprofits with operating budgets that large--less than 1 percent of the statewide total, fewer than Española, Deming or Raton.

What does that mean? Just this: Rio Rancho hasn’t matured enough yet to have generated the orchestras, theater groups, youth programs, charities and museums that the nonprofit sector provides in older communities.

It takes time for these ventures to develop. They almost certainly will someday in Rio Rancho, just as they have every other civilized place. Until then, though, Rio Rancho—like Belen, Los Lunas, the East Mountains and most of Central New Mexico—relies on Albuquerque for quality of life amenities … or does without.

You may not need art, music or theater to exist. But without them, you're short-changed. Without them, your community cannot truly be described as a “city,” no matter how many people live there for census purposes. In my mind, they are all part of what goes into making a place “livable.”

How should they be financed? Up until recently we’ve essentially said that while quality of life activities are important, they shouldn’t be paid for with tax money.

Except that the first Chavez administration 10 years ago convinced us to construct a number of quality of life amenities with an earlier quarter-cent tax that financed museums (Explora, Balloon and Albuquerque), the Aquarium, libraries, the Bio Park and zoo and the restoration of the KiMo Theatre. And we are all (OK, mostly all) delighted with the results. They have greatly enhanced the cultural life of this city.

So it seems we’ve already decided this issue (as have most communities in the country): Financing cultural activity should be the joint responsibility of the governmental and the private sectors.

We don’t need to look back over our shoulders at this decision. It’s a responsible, prudent one. Besides, voters can always pull the plug on this partnership if they grow unhappy with it or if the partnership grows too out of balance.

Why this sudden surge in interest in increasing taxes?

First, the city and county were not merged two years ago when voters had a chance to do so. The consequences are still rolling out, and one of them is that the balance between services and taxes has gotten out of whack in the two entities, particularly now that the county has assumed operational responsibility for the jail.

This means the city has a windfall from the sudden reduction in its financial obligation to the jail … and the county has a crushing new obligation. At the same time, the pressure on the county to finance health care for the uninsured at UNMH becomes greater each year.

The shifting responsibilities and resources haven’t been sorted out yet. The city says it may propose a cut in the Gross Receipts Tax next year now that the jail is no longer part of its budget. We will certainly see a lot more changes in our local tax structure over the next few years. Some way of financing quality of life programs ought to be in the mix.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

 

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