Stretching itself across more than 1,100 square miles through the middle of New Mexico, Bernalillo County—our most populous county—is getting ready to be a big dog as new challenges face governance, taxes and ultimately, the citizens holding the leash.
Voters recently passed a new home rule-based county charter that will provide county residents, commissioners, elected officials and administrators with more local power to make quicker decisions to keep up with a growing urban/rural population. The county will now be able to operate more like Albuquerque city government operates under its charter. Since the late 1800s, Bernalillo County has functioned under burdensome, slow moving state law directives. Today Bernalillo County is New Mexico’s most populous county with more than 674,000 residents. This includes half million plus Burqueños along with the 100,000 or so that live in diverse landscapes and townships ranging from Tijeras’ mountains to the lush river Bosque to the stark, dusty, desert West Mesa.
The number of commission districts, elected officials, ordinances and management will continue under the home rule charter. Some of the changes include implementation of a code of ethics and more transparency in government business, more grant application flexibility, more accountability and more oversight of county investments, looking for merit and capability in employment decisions and allowing voter approved changes to be made to the charter. Asked about the new home rule initiative, Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca told Weekly Alibi, “The Home Rule Urban County Charter will provide the framework for additional flexibility in how Bernalillo County government operates. The county will utilize this charter as a mechanism to enhance the efficient delivery of services to our community.”
This local control is a good thing since the county is in the early development stages of a new, sprawling West Mesa megadevelopment called Santolina.
Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca told Weekly Alibi, “The Home Rule Urban County Charter will provide the framework for additional flexibility in how Bernalillo County government operates. The county will utilize this charter as a mechanism to enhance the efficient delivery of services to our community.”
Santolina is the largest master development plan ever approved by the Bernalillo County Commission. Santolina covers 13,850 acres on the edge of the city’s West Mesa near 118th Street and south of I-40. The first phase of a master plan was narrowly approved in 2015, causing political ripples well into the recent 2016 election. The developers’ next phase is in the county’s request bin and is currently being reviewed by county planning staff. Water issues pertinent to the plan’s implementation are being reviewed by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority.
The optimistic developers say Santolina could be a self-sustaining community of 90,000 people, with 75,000 new jobs. Opponents say the megadevelopment will strain our already fragile land and water resources. They point to the nearly vacant Mesa del Sol to illustrate that another megadevelopment is not needed.
At its Nov. 15 meeting, the Bernalillo County Commission narrowly approved, on a 3–2 vote, the creation of a tax increment development district, or TIDD, for 21-square miles of Santolina. The new deal gives Santolina developers, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC, 45 percent of future gross receipts taxes and 45 percent of future property taxes collected within the TIDD area. The TIDD does not impact state or other government agencies. The only county residents paying the tax are those owning property and or doing business in the TIDD area. This amount, capped at $500 million and adjusted for inflation, could hit $1 billion over the next 50 years. Proponents say the reimbursement will speed up the massive amount of public infrastructure needed to attract hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents to its five residential and commercial village centers. Opponents say this TIDD will drain the rest of the county services because the county is still required to provide all services such as sewer, fire and law enforcement protection and other such amenities to the TIDD area, but with only 55 percent of tax revenue taken in from affected residences and businesses. The county says the Santolina development could generate $4.6 billion in additional revenue over the next 50 years.
As of press time, the five commissioners are set to meet on Nov. 29. The agenda states they are going to proclaim, along with the New Mexico DWI Coordinators Affiliate, Dec. 4–10 as DWI Awareness week to bring awareness and to reduce the incidences of DWI, alcoholism, drug abuse in the county and to reduce the incidences of domestic abuse connected to alcohol and drug abuse, as well.
Other interesting items on this week’s commission agenda include requesting approval for a full time Sheriff’s Department sergeant to supervise 26 community service aides, a public hearing that will discuss issuing up to $10.5 million Industrial Revenue Bonds for the county and approval to buy land that will be designated as open space. Also on the commission’s agenda: the appointment of a new Bernalillo County Clerk to fulfill the remainder of current clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s term. Oliver was elected to fill the remainder of the vacant Secretary of State’s position.
After the meeting on Nov. 29, the next meeting of the county commission is Dec. 13, at 5pm, in the Vincent E. Griego Chambers in the basement of the City County Building in downtown Albuquerque.