This might hurt. I am going to say something highly complimentary about Mayor Martin Chavez. To get there, I need first to tell John D.’s story.
John D. was drinking in his apartment last summer. Because of his prescription medicine, he blacked out after a few beers. Later that night, a police officer received a call about someone throwing a rock through a window. He found John D. staggering on the sidewalk. John D. politely said he didn’t remember throwing anything, but for some reason had a rock in his pocket. The officer arrested him for vandalism, but mostly wanted to get him off the street for his own protection.
John D. then got lost in the Bernalillo County jail system for two months.
Lawyers from John D.’s church took his case pro bono. John D. had been reassembling his life, despite a mountain of personal problems. He would forfeit a college scholarship if not freed by the time classes started. A Metropolitan Court judge ordered him released immediately.
John D. was moved several times a week between the Downtown facility, where he was housed with federal prisoners, to the detention center on the far West Mesa. Guards explained he was being processed for release. But each time he was returned without explanation to his cell in the middle of the night. He would call his lawyers at dawn, tearful, understandably frightened and confused.
The problem was brought to the judge’s attention. The arresting officer appeared before her, shocked John D. was still in jail. He agreed the young man should be released so he could attend college and make something of his life. The judge contacted the jail, confirming her release order. Nothing happened. At times, Bernalillo County even denied holding John D.
One of the volunteer lawyers in desperation went to the jail at night and banged on the doors until they let him in. He pleaded for his client’s release. They simply turned John D. over to him, though the jail still denied having an order for his release. John D. got out just days before starting college.
The officer dropped the unprovable charges. Nonetheless, John D., with no prior criminal record, spent more time lost in the Bernalillo County jail system than he would have received if convicted and sentenced for breaking a window.
The Albuquerque Journal has reported instances of other people who have disappeared into Bernalillo County’s gulag. Metro Court judges tell me this happens all the time and express disgust at how the county runs its jail. But, as shown by John D.’s case, the jail doesn’t seem to care much what judges think.
John D. wasn’t alone in paying for the county’s incompetence. It takes a lot of money to keep someone in prison, and taxpayers always foot the bill for mistakes. John D.’s case demonstrates but one way the county wastes money in its jail operation.
Which brings me back to Mayor Marty. He’s fighting the City Council’s desire to write a check for $9 million to cover the county’s shortfall in running its jail. In order to write that check, the City Council wants to delay his proposed gross receipts tax cut by six months. He vetoed the bill. The Council may have delivered its override by the time you read this.
Mayor Chavez owns the better side of this argument. Our taxes have climbed 18 percent since 2000. The gross receipts tax is our most regressive tax because it falls hardest on the poor. A little relief will help low-income families and improve the city’s competitive position vis-à-vis the rest of central New Mexico.
The worst part of this deal is that the city would gain no leverage in how the county spends its $9 million handout. Last year the county assumed jail operations from the city. It had complained the city acted too autonomously. The county won this tug of war. It can now run the jail as it wants.
The Council would simply transfer the funds, no strings attached, without forcing the county to get its penal act together. Only a fool could believe this will be the last time they come begging.
Bernalillo County government is certainly no friend to Albuquerque taxpayers. It doesn’t do much for us except assess and collect taxes and mismanage a jail. With Manny Aragon’s help, the county stole our billion-dollar water system. Our so-called friendly partners in local government threaten us again with dire legislative repercussions if we don’t cough up nine mil.
City councilors mock Chavez’ stance. They accuse him of “holding [his] breath and jumping up and down” to dissuade them from delaying his tax cut. Just as the City Council misjudged the furor over the now-scuttled streetcar tax, they may be misreading how the public will see this controversy. The City Council says Chavez is being childish. But to taxpayers, it looks like he’s the only one not bending over.