Alibi V.26 No.31 • Aug 3-9, 2017 

News Interview

A Conversation with Maggie Hart Stebbins

County commissioner seeks progress

Maggie Hart Stebbins
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins
Carolyn Carlson

This middle Rio Grande Valley we inhabit is a layered political enchilada with lots of bubbling parts. One of those political layers is the Bernalillo County Commission. The commission guides growth and development for Bernalillo County’s 676,953 residents, of which about 559,277 also live within the Albuquerque city limits. Albuquerque only takes up about 189 square miles of BernCo’s 1,161 square miles. The rest of the county is a diverse landscape from the mountain village of Tijeras to the lush Rio Grande Bosque of Los Ranchos.

Weekly Alibi had coffee with Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins to chat a bit about how things are going over at the county side of our local government. Hart Stebbins has been on the commission since her appointment in 2009 and will be term limited out when she finishes up in 2020. She sits on the commission with four other commissioners—Debbie O’Malley, Wayne Johnson, Steven Michael Quezada and Lonnie Talbert. Together they handle a myriad of issues facing our growing mountain and river valley population.

Weekly Alibi: The idea of unification between the city and the county has been floated on and off over the years. The most recent was an idea from the Albuquerque City Council to join up at least on public safety. What do you think of the unification idea, in full or part? What is better for the taxpayer?

The idea of unifying city and county governments has merit, and we should consider the advantages to taxpayers of combining operations. While unification would require an incredible amount of hard work and thoughtful planning, we could eliminate the duplication that currently exists where both county and city have departments delivering the same services—two fire departments, two public works departments, two economic development departments, two law enforcement agencies—just to name a few, and save costs through combined administrative functions.

While our governments work well together in many cases, we often see a lack of coordination and disputes about who pays for what. Despite progress over the past few years through mutual aid agreements and cooperation in some circumstances, we still have county government providing basic services on one side of the city limits and city government on the other. Consolidation would also allow consistency in land use planning and eliminate the double taxation of city residents. City taxpayers should be particularly interested in the benefits of unification because we pay for two governments but receive most services from just one.

The City Council’s recent proposal to study the benefits of combining all public safety assets deserves consideration as part of a larger unification plan but not before APD has realized the reforms required by the US Department of Justice. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department has a long tradition of effective, community-based policing, and I would need a guarantee that any combined law enforcement effort would adopt BCSD’s culture.

Santolina and Mesa del Sol are both potentially large sprawling mega developments on the edge of the metro area. Albuquerque/Bernalillo County does not have a housing shortage, and we live with environmentally fragile water, land and air in our unique place on the planet. Is it a wise move to approve such large developments? Do they encourage sprawl? Do you think the area will see that kind of growth in the next 50 years?

It’s hard to predict where we will be 50 years from now, but population projections showing massive growth in central New Mexico have been scaled back repeatedly over the past few years. However, it’s critical that we begin planning now for as many as 300,000 more people living in Bernalillo County in 2040. Accommodating that growth demands thoughtful planning that protects our environment and limited water resources, our quality of life, and our existing neighborhoods.

While developers maintain that master planned communities such as Mesa del Sol and Santolina are needed to accommodate new residents, time will tell if there is a demand for housing in those areas. I respect the rights of landowners to use their property as they choose and agree that a master planned community is better than the scattershot development we see in places like Rio Rancho, but those developments shouldn’t come at a cost to taxpayers or existing neighborhoods. I worked hard to amend the Santolina master plan and development agreements to avoid saddling future county residents with the burden of subsidizing the costs of that project. Unfortunately, many of my amendments were voted down, but I’ll continue to fight for policies that protect our water supply and county finances.

The county took the lead with implementing the mental health tax to provide dollars to address and help the city/county’s substance abuse and mental health epidemic. How is that undertaking going?

In 2014, nearly 70 percent of Bernalillo County voters said they supported a new gross receipts tax dedicated to expanding access to behavioral health services in Bernalillo County. In response, the County Commission implemented a 1/8th cent gross receipts tax that generates approximately $17 million per year for new mental health and substance use treatment services countywide. As of August 1, 2017, the new revenue funds an array of priority programs including supportive housing services for homeless individuals who live with mental illness, mobile crisis and community engagement teams, prevention and early intervention services for children at risk of mental and substance use disorders, transitional housing for adolescents in recovery, peer support services, and an inmate resource center to reduce crime by helping inmates transition back into the community. Future plans include a crisis response center and data collection and analysis to measure the outcomes of all new behavioral health programs.

Funding decisions are guided by community input and a network of amazing community volunteers who propose and evaluate ideas for new programming.

Do you have some ideas on how the city and county governments can work better together for the benefit of all its residents?

There have been sincere efforts by both County Commissioners and City Councilors to collaborate on issues and problems that affect our community. While we are separate governments with our own budgets and responsibilities, we are obligated as policymakers to look for common ground and seek ways to be more effective and efficient. The ABC Community Schools Partnership is an excellent example of how city and county officials can put aside their egos and work together with APS, United Way, the private sector and community volunteers to make Albuquerque/Bernalillo County a safer, better place for children and families.