City/County Unification Charter

Vote “No”

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While there are a great many reasons to support city/county unification, apparently the main reason to oppose it is the threat of higher taxes. That at least is the conclusion you might reach from listening to the barely audible debate on one the most important issues facing Bernalillo County voters this year.

Among the noisy, expensive campaigns designed to capture the voters' imagination (or keep them away from the polls), farther down on the ballot, however, are a number of equally crucial bond issues and (once again) the ratification of the proposed “unification charter.” This measure would meld Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque into a single governmental entity, if the voters pass it.

Unification has garnered little attention, due possibly to a shared failure of heart between supporters and opponents, and this probably spells its demise. Our reading of the proposed charter revealed nothing that would support the claim of higher taxes. Article 5 of the proposed charter (finance) says existing property taxes would remain the same and only voters can approve any new taxes other than those authorized by general law—the same situation that exists currently.

So the “higher taxes” problem exists, not in the content of the proposed charter but solely in the imagination of the population (those 150,000 or so living in the unincorporated parts of Bernalillo County) which has for years been enjoying subsidized services—a subsidy that would end if all 600,000 residents of Bernalillo County were taxed by a single unified government.

The silent issue is that for many years persons living in the city of Albuquerque have paid city taxes plus county taxes but have received services only from the city. This set-up basically amounts to a nifty subsidy to county folks by their dim-witted (or maybe just very generous) city cousins.

A “yes” vote on unification would end that. So if you live outside of the city limits, your taxes could go up at some future point, when the new unified government could choose to treat all its residents equitably. For city residents, your taxes won't go up and you may actually get more services than you do now.

But aside from the impact it may (or may not) have on your pocketbook, there are other important points to consider. Duplication of efforts (e.g., two police and fire agencies, two personnel systems, two solid waste departments), inconsistent attitudes toward planned growth, and friction during joint efforts at sharing responsibility (the water board and the new Metropolitan Detention Center, to name two) are all problems that could be reduced or eliminated with a unified government.

The charter would do away with the nine-member City Council and five-member County Commission and replace them with an 11-member board of commissioners. All 11 seats would be up for election next year and would be decided in partisan races.

Other currently elected positions such as county treasurer and county assessor would become appointed positions, chosen by a county manager, who is chosen by the mayor. The county manager would also be responsible for appointing department heads throughout the city-county ranks. If this sounds like an open invitation to political cronyism and over-reaching mayoral power, be advised that the mayor appoints all the department heads anyway.

The biggest hurdle the charter faces is actually that no high-profile officials have been willing to step up and declare what a good idea it is, nor has anyone been willing to stare-down the opposition when it starts chanting about “higher taxes.”

Bottom line is, absent a champion, this version of a unified city/county government charter doesn't have a chance for passage. For example, Mayor Marty Chavez' opinion sums up the problem: He “strongly supports” unification, but “reluctantly opposes” this charter based on two factors. For starters, Chavez opposes partisan elections for the board of commissioners. We agree. Local partisan elections are pointless and divisive, especially when a constitutional amendment will very likely reinstate runoff elections next year. Chavez also opposes having an elected sheriff replace the appointed chief of police. “Guns and badges must answer to coats and ties,” the mayor said last week. We strongly agree.

Overall, getting rid of duplicate fire, police and planning departments is a great idea. Creating local partisan elections right at a time when run-off elections are being reinstated is a terrible idea. Electing a sheriff without holding him accountable to the mayor is also a terrible idea. The Alibi recommends voting “no” on this year's unification charter, and hopefully next year, the authors will get it all right.

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