While the Albuquerque City Council wrestles with municipal governance, some of the issues currently facing the Bernalillo County Commission include a new megadevelopment on the edge of the metropolitan area, long-standing claims of abuse and mismanagement at the Bernalillo County Detention Center, and dealing with and attempting to ameliorate a growing, county-wide mental health crisis. Among a myriad of other things, the Commission oversees operations at the MDC, provides stewardship and administers development of miles of vacant land on the West Side, and also advises on the use of millions in revenue collected by county taxes, like those from the mental health tax, implemented about a year ago.
Bernalillo County was established under Mexican rule as one of three prefecturas. In 1852 it became one of the original nine counties in the territory. It was named after the Gonzales-Bernal family that settled here in the 17th century. It is the most populous and the third smallest of New Mexico’s 33 counties. Bernalillo County consists of only 1,167 square miles with Albuquerque, the county seat, making up about 83 percent of its population. Bernalillo County incorporates a wide variety of landscapes, from dense forests to the Rio Grande Bosque, to sand-swept mesas. Despite the fact that the city and county share so many of the same issues, in 1959, 1973, 2003 and 2004, city and county voters rejected ballot initiatives to merge the two governments into one comprehensive municipality.
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Government Commission is a quasi-legislative body the two government councils and the mayor meet to discuss issues that impact both city and county. Four members are from the City Council and four members are from the County Commission, and along with the mayor, they make up the nine-member body that meets once each month. They don’t decide things but do hear presentations, discuss them, and then go back to their respective municipal tables with recommendations on issues of common stake. The issues shared can be controversial and have wide-ranging impacts. Here are a few of those shared interests currently simmering.
In June 2015, the largest master development plan ever approved by the Bernalillo County Commission was passed on a tight, 3-2 vote. Santolina sits on 13,700 acres on the city’s edge, atop the West Mesa near 118th Street and I-40. If it is fully built out over the next 40 years, developers say Santolina could be a self-sustaining community of 90,000, with 75,000 new jobs. Opponents say the megadevelopment will strain already fragile water resources and is not needed. Opponents point to the still mostly vacant Mesa del Sol south of Albuquerque. Santolina developers must get future approval of specific detailed plans before actual dirt can be moved. The primary developer, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, is currently in negotiation with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority for water related issues. Santolina has caused quite a bit of hub-bub within political circles, with ethics allegations being flung between two candidates who are vying for a key open seat on the Commission up for grabs in the November election. This district two County Commission race pits Democrat Steven Michael Quezada against Republican Patricia B. Paiz.
Albuquerque City Councilors have no official say in the county’s decisions regarding Santolina development plans, yet the development will absolutely impact the city’s infrastructure and economic activity. Its potentially like adding another Rio Rancho to the edge of Albuquerque. Stay tuned.
Jail House Blues
Bernalillo County is responsible for the annual budget and management of the huge 1,950 inmate capacity jail on the West Side. Albuquerque Police Department puts the bulk of people in the slammer so its operations are of concern to Albuquerque’s mayoral administration and city politicos, too. A recently released video showed unnecessary and cruel mistreatment of a female inmate by several Metropolitan Detention Center guards. The West Side lock-up has a history riddled with problems, from a shortage of guards to overcrowding to rampant allegations of poor treatment. A US District Court 1995 lawsuit filed by inmate Jimmie McClendon said that the jail, then Downtown in a decrepit building, was operated in a manner that violated the State and the US Constitution. The case was finally settled 20 years later in June 2016, which is just about the time the video was recorded of a jail supervisor telling his guards to twist an inmate’s arm until she stopped crying. This incident along with several others, plus the never-ending stream of lawsuits filed against the detention center, are causing the county to rethink their management plan. The city does not pay the county to house its inmates instead contending that a portion of each city resident’s county taxes go towards funding the jail. Under state law it is the obligation of the counties to provide jail services; this allows them to charge a fair daily rate per inmate to those dropping off arrestees. All are problems, but all are problems that can be collaboratively addressed.
Mental Health Tax
In 2014, Bernalillo County voters passed a one-eighth of one percent tax to go toward solving the county’s mental health crisis. A county study said that about 50 percent of the county and city’s residents are in need of some sort of mental health care. At the recent June 6 meeting of the City County Government Commission, Bernalillo County’s Director of Substance Abuse Programs, Katrina Hotrum, gave an update how the Task Force on Behavioral Health is envisioning spending the $17 million so far collected. She said ideas include single site supportive housing, helping to provide mental health services to entire families, and setting up mobile crisis teams to respond to emergency mental health calls to deescalate situations, especially if law enforcement is involved.
Due to recent tragic and horrifying alleged homicides against children in Bernalillo County, the City County Government Commission is set to meet on this Tuesday, Aug. 30. at 5pm to discuss ways to use tax money to prevent child abuse-related deaths and in general to raise awareness of significant issues in the fabric of our civic culture.
Albuquerque City Councilors meet on the first and third Monday of each month. Bernalillo County Commission meets on the second and fourth Monday. The City County Government Commission usually meets on the fourth Thursday of the month. All meetings are streamed live on GOV TV, the local government channel 16.