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 V.13 No.5 | January 29 - February 4, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

Focus on the City Budget

Honeymoon could sour over public safety tax money

The new city council's honeymoon with the Chavez administration has been a refreshing period of municipal calm and domestic tranquility, a mood starkly in contrast to our recent history in which mayor/council relations have more resembled a barroom brawl at One Civic Plaza than a walk on the beach.

Unfortunately, that two month, placid interlude might be coming to a screeching halt.

Ironically, the issue that seems poised to insert the proverbial monkey wrench into the machinery of local government is the exact same one that marked one of the rare harmonious moments of the last city council—the new quarter cent gross receipts tax dedicated to public safety.

At this point, the close observer of Albuquerque affairs will slap him or herself on the forehead and begin squinting tightly. How could the public safety tax produce friction?

The way it was presented to the voters, every dime seemed to have been apportioned in advance, a neat formula in which the cops got one third, the firemen got one third, the jail got a cool million and a half and the remainder (estimated to be 26 percent or about $6.7 million annually) was to be devoted to prevention efforts.

Wasn't that the distribution we voters all approved?

Apparently, no. And there's the rub.

You see, the city council and the mayor now have to reach an agreement on just how to divvy up the prevention efforts piece of the action, and Mayor Chavez, as is his custom, has moved nimbly and quickly to the front of the pack with his own set of ideas for how that ought to be done.

In December his administration hosted one of those showcase “Town Hall Summits” to elicit public input on crucial issues facing the community. The topic was homelessness and behavioral health. It took a look at how Albuquerque could begin grappling realistically with what continues to be one of our society's most solution-resistant issues.

The reason the behavioral health needs of the homeless had suddenly emerged on the front page of the daily papers had little to do with the actual necessities of the homeless in this community, who for the most part continue to live outside the margins of our consciousness.

But a dramatic event last summer captured on television for us all the shooting death of one mentally disturbed homeless man who had resisted arrest and then shot and grievously wounded a police officer with her own weapon. Then he strode up Central through the Nob Hill neighborhood firing randomly with her pistol until he was killed by police gunfire.

Instantaneously the mentally ill homeless rocketed to the top of the charts of hot civic issues. After years of what might charitably be termed “benign neglect,” their situation overnight became something demanding attention ... and dollars.

That was the reason the summit on behavioral health and homelessness was organized. And the recommendations that came out of that summit are the origin of Mayor Chavez' interest in “broadening” the way that the public safety money can be used.

His plan is apparently to spend a considerable portion (if not all) of the new funding for prevention and intervention on responding to the need for treatment of that relatively small percent of the homeless population who are both mentally ill and who commit criminal acts that pose a danger to others.

There's no argument that more needs to be done to treat that population. A joint state/city effort to increase the treatment options available to protect them and the rest of us while they are getting the proper medication and support service is extremely desirable.

But there's so many more needs that we should be spending those new dollars on that some observers are worried that this single high-visibility concern will get more than the lion's share of resources, which will leave gaping holes where other problems should be getting attention.

Problems, for instance, that could be addressed by after school programs which have shown they reduce teen crime, drinking and violence. Or the DWI treatment efforts and the methamphetamine and crack cocaine treatment programs that could all use additional financial resources. And even among the homeless, services that are designed to assist them in stabilizing their lives, whether or not they are potentially violent.

So for now it's the City Council that's scrambling to catch up. If its decision on how to go about disbursing those new millions doesn't mesh with Hizzoner's, we will probably once again be caught up in a test of wills, a struggle for control that could threaten far more issues than just this one.

An outspoken, involved public represents the best hope for heading off another epidemic of belly-bumping at City Hall. If the public expresses its views and if it shows up for the hearings on the budget, the unmistakable message to both mayor and council will be: Keep working cooperatively, guys.

The issue is too important to allow it to deteriorate into merely yet another bargaining chip in a shoving match for top dog status.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer, and not the opinions of the Alibi management or staff.

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