Alibi V.18 No.26 • June 25-July 1, 2009 

Council Watch

The Rumble of Democracy

On one side of the room: around 25 motorcycle enthusiasts wearing lots of leather. Scattered throughout: a couple dozen blind or otherwise disabled Albuquerqueans.

The bikers showed up at the June 22 Council meeting to comment on a proposed change to the city’s noise ordinance that would curtail loud engine revving. The disabled citizens populated City Hall in force to urge the renewal of the quarter-cent gross receipts tax for transportation projects. Two and a half hours into the meeting, the Council deferred the noise issue until August. The bikers took off at the break, and the sounds of Harley and Japanese bike engines rumbled away.

In other business, financial gurus told the Council that gross receipts are down about 5 percent, or $20 million, for the month of April. (There is a months-long lag in gross receipt reporting.) The General Obligation bond was approved for the October ballot.

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Issue Council's Take Reporter's Take
Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Ten years ago voters approved a quarter-cent gross receipts transportation tax. If city residents want to continue funding road and transportation projects, it is time to tax again.

City administration proposed varying percentages that would split tax money between five transit areas: road rehabilitation, road deficiencies, road maintenance, trails and bikeways, and public transit, which gets the biggest piece of consumer tax money. There is still about $52 million unspent in the road tax fund from prior years. Michael Riordan, spokesperson for the city’s administration, said the excess came from an unexpected increase in consumer spending a few years ago. That money is in the process of being appropriated.

An amendment would have increased the public transit and road rehabilitation percentage, decreased the road deficiencies amount, and left the road maintenance and bike/trails portions unchanged. The tax works out to be 25 cents for every $100 spent in Albuquerque, drawing into city coffers about $37 million annually.
Councilors Debbie O’Malley, Brad Winter, Don Harris and Michael Cadigan said they would rather see a reduction of the tax to one-eighth of a percent. In light of the $52 million excess and the economy, they said they could not justify asking the public to approve the existing tax rate. The proposed reduced rate would only bring in about $18 million annually.

More than a dozen tax supporters, most with disabilities, came to the meeting to tell the Council how important public transit is to them. Several people spoke in opposition to the tax at any rate.

Council members discussed the issue for more than an hour before barely approving the measure 5-4 without the amendment; Councilors Isaac Benton, Ken Sanchez, Sally Mayer, Trudy Jones and Rey Garduño voted to put the full quarter-cent tax, not the reduced rate, in front of voters in October.

The Council tacked on a policy statement that no money collected from this tax could be used for any type of rail system without a separate vote by the public. In October, the choice will be to keep the tax or pitch it.
The many residents who addressed councilors about the necessity of transit services were impressive. They said the city’s public transportation makes it possible to get to work and medical appointments and enjoy an independent and mobile life. It is shortsighted of tax opponents to call for worse road care, bike trails and mass transit. These are perfect reasons for taxes to exist.

Maintaining the tax rate is a painless way to keep us moving forward. No one seriously misses 25 cents per $100.

Still, the decision shows the Council's lack of vision. It limits future use of existing surplus money by eliminating even the possibility of light rail. The tax runs for 10 years. There is no telling what gas prices will be or what transportation needs will arise during the next decade. It is likely many more people will require mass transit of all types.
Changing the Game

The City Charter is Albuquerque's governing and guiding document, almost like a constitution. A 15-member task force worked on revisions for nearly a year, and Councilors were asked to approve them. Citizens will get a chance to vote on each of the 10 propositions on the October ballot. Among them: making the city clerk more independent of the Mayor’s Office; establishing a process outside of courtrooms to resolve Council and mayor squabbles; and changing how elected officials get raises.

The proposed revisions attempt to clarify how the Council and mayor work together on budget issues and initiate what looks like a more collaborative process in several areas. A controversial change in how nonprofits would be treated—briefly discussed a few months ago [“Nonprofits Back Under the Microscope,” April 30-May 6, 2009]—will not be part of October’s ballot.
Councilors pushed nearly a dozen amendments of the task force’s recommendations. A couple of people spoke in support of allowing the revisions onto the ballot. Those speaking against the proposed changes said they wanted to see some strong ethics measures that would take on the “pay-to-play” mentality of city politics.

David Campbell, a member of the task force, explained how much time and hard work the task force put into balancing competing interests. Councilors Jones, Mayer and O’Malley wanted to know why there was such a rush to get the proposals on the October ballot. They thought the Council and the residents deserved a little more time to understand Charter changes.

In the end, the three councilors opposed the measure and called for more public discussion of the floor amendments. The other six councilors said there was plenty of time for the public to get familiar with the revisions before October.

In a 6-3 vote, the Council put the proposed changes to the City Charter on the ballot, including their last-minute amendments to the work done by the task force.
The conversation among councilors was all but impossible to follow. While the agenda is available at the door, last-minute floor amendments and their underlying documents are not handed out to the public. City staff are usually happy to provide documents to anyone, but most people don’t know they can ask. Another week for citizens to study the measure and amendments would be reasonable.

The Charter is, and should be, changed infrequently. The administration and the Council had an opportunity to include a public breakout session about the Charter at its recent neighborhood association gathering. If they would have done so, then the association folks could have helped disseminate the important information among their neighborhoods.

The Charter is an interesting and important document, and residents, especially young people, should take the time to read it before walking into the October voting booth. Some proposed floor amendments to the Charter appeared to be aimed at reigning in this particular mayor. A Charter should visualize how a city runs, regardless of who is in power.

General Obligation Bond Funding Approved for the October Ballot

$8.4 million: Police and Fire Departments
$22.7 million: Senior and community centers
$34.4 million: Parks and Recreation
$16.2 million: Public facilities water conservation
$5.1 million: Libraries
$31.4 million: Street bonds
$7.8 million: Public transportation
$13.8 million: Sewer
$9.7 million: BioPark, Zoo, Museum
$10 million: Affordable housing

Breakdown of the $36 Million in Transportation Gross Receipts

31 percent (up from 26 percent) for road rehabilitation
15 percent (down from 26 percent) for road deficiencies
12 percent (no change) for road maintenance
4 percent (no change) for trails and bikeways
36 percent (up from 30 percent) for public transit