Alibi V.28 No.51 • Dec 19-25, 2019 

News Interview

Metal Mayor Makes Progress

Accomplishments, challenges and advances

Mayor Keller
Mayor Keller
Eric Williams Photography

It’s well after 5pm on a Monday night at City Hall and the bright lights are still burning in the Mayor’s office on the 11th floor.

In a series of roomy, comfortably appointed offices displaying the essential Albuquerque—including a hand-carved santo, books on our history, a certificate from the Boy Scouts of America and a painting by UNM postmodern master and painter John Wenger—Mayor Tim Keller and company are busy reshaping the city.

On the coffee table adjacent to Keller’s desk, there’s a book. It’s The New Localism by Harvard scholars Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, and it’s pointing right to Keller’s seat at the center of our city government as the Mayor enters and is seated for our yearly interview.

Weekly Alibi: What’s new, Mr. Mayor?

Mayor Tim Keller: In many ways, our city has actually made a lot of progress in two years. We know that in one key area—obviously violent crime—we’re just getting started. Sustainability is one [issue] where we’ve been able to take our city from a kind of infancy. We’re on a path to be a national leader. We will be 100 percent renewable in terms of how this government gets its electricity. By 2030—and that’s not too far away—we’ll be using 100 percent renewable energy.

You’re talking about powering all city buildings and facilities with solar power, right?

Yes. The cool thing is we’re going to be able to do half of it in just a couple of years. By 2025, we’ll be half done. We put solar panels on every [city] building we could. That got us 25 percent of the way there. We’re building a giant solar power plant with Silver City, out in the Jicarilla Nation, out by Dulce, N.M. That power plant is going to provide about half the electricity for city government. We’ll get another slice through energy savings, through efficiency. Now, our fire stations have solar panels, the plaza and the zoo have solar panels. There are recharging stations for electric cars, too.

I know with the term “sustainability” and ideas about transportation, we also start talking about public transport and urbanism.

We’re working on that on a couple of fronts. We’re diversifying our fleet into hybrids and electric vehicles. We’re starting with our 40-foot buses, because the technology is ready to make those electric. We use those all over and for the River of Lights and so forth. Those buses will slowly be replaced by electric buses.. When the technology is ready, we’ll move ART over. We expect a 10-year life span for the ART buses. I think they’ll last longer, but financially, we’ll begin considering replacements after 10 years. With garbage trucks, we’re going to go CNG [compressed natural gas].

What about ART?

The ART project is designed to really get more riders onto public transit.

ART is still an important part of changing the city dynamic toward sustainability. We do think drivers in this town need to sharpen those skills. What do you think?

We’ve been reminding folks for two years now. But, yeah, the project, whether you like it or not, the concept is all about more ridership and more activity on Route 66. Just because it’s already there, we want the concept to work. We’re going to do what we can. We’re going to put some heavy marketing behind ART. Next year we’re going to roll out a half-million dollar campaign to sort of reinvigorate Route 66. Part of that is because you can take a rapid transit bus through there. I think, in some ways, the stations—there are lots of design pieces that I didn’t particularly like—we’ve added some color to them and we tried to make them identifiable locally, so ART stations have names like “Old Town” and “Nob Hill.”

Are the new ART-related rules of the road on Central Avenue problematic for Albuquerque drivers?

On the one hand, it’s like, “Now you have to follow some rules instead of playing Frogger.” Before, that kinda worked but now there are specific paths for cars and for buses [on Central]. We have to acknowledge that safety is really important. Even if you don’t like the setup, we want everyone to be safe. It’s really important to follow rules, use the crosswalks, read the signs, things like that. We are going to revisit the situation this summer, are going to look at anything else we can do that’s within regulatory boundaries. Can we improve striping, can we add pin curbs? We also want to create pedestrian refuges. Right now, at Nob Hill, there’s just an ocean of asphalt.

Other issues that readers have expressed concern over include homelessness and violent crime. Those are big topics for such a short interview, but could you tell our readers what you’re doing to lift our city up from such scourges?

Let’s start with homelessness. We’re working on this challenge and it’s huge. Over the last few years, there have been [at least] 500 more homeless people every year in Albuquerque. I’m just grateful it’s not worse. Other cities in America are being overwhelmed by homelessness, but we can fix this in Albuquerque. The good news is we have a good group of providers involved. At a high level, there are some things we’ve done. We have to keep the Westside shelter open year-round. That facility takes 300 people off the street. The downside is that they’re on the edge of town, in an old jail and that doesn’t necessarily work for getting people help, but we’re starting to get healthcare [providers] out there.

The city is poised to build a central service center to help the homeless. Tell our readers about that.

We need a gateway where homeless folks can access all the existing providers. Right now, by default, that gateway is basically Coronado Park. In other words, the system is already telling us the answer we need. We need to have one place where people can get the help they need. The voters wonderfully approved that by a good margin, and so now we’re having this wonderful fight about where to put it [the facility]. No one really wants it in their neighborhood, but we did have a positive meeting last week. We have six sites in mind; no decision has been made yet—until we do our homework. Eventually, the City Council will vote on the matter of location. We might have multiple sites, but we have to start somewhere, we have to have that one gateway. We stepped up, the city stepped up for the first time and said, “We are going to do something about homelessness.”

What’s driving the crime in the city and how are you working on that?

It’s by far the number one challenge, both for our city and for my administration, and obviously for the police department. Therefore, it’s our number one priority. We know that almost all of the violent crime is at the intersection of a weapon, a gun and either domestic violence or addiction and drug trafficking. That fact gives us an idea of where we need to focus. These challenges are totally interrelated. And of course, poverty is at the base of all that. Adding an addiction, or adding a weapon in the home when there is already domestic abuse, that’s when violent crime happens. We do know that we’ve seen meaningful, albeit small, decreases in things like burglary and auto theft, but we’re aware that violent crime, especially homicide, are up. We’re approaching this like homelessness [issues]. We’re really working and are coordinating with all local agencies to get chronically violent criminals off the street. Historically, that interagency coordination wasn’t happening. The other thing is that we are looking at those overarching issues, and that’s the administrations’s violence intervention work, its called VIP, the Violence Intervention Program. That’s a version of something called C Spire which has shown double-digit reductions in violent crime in cities from Oakland to New Haven to Stockton. It has to do with meeting victims to talk about domestic abuse and addiction.

Is this part of getting behavioral health services back in place?

We’ve also got to rebuild the behavioral health system that was destroyed five years ago. I actually believe that one of the major drivers of crime in our city was the dismantling of that; I don’t have a study on that [yet] but that’s my intuition.

What about our city police force and related reform issues?

We fixed use-of-force. It was the longest-standing issue. It was why DOJ was here. We pushed to get all parties involved to agree to a new policy. And that was what was being avoided in the past because it was such a delicate topic. But we got the ACLU, the courts, the union and the judges to agree. And now we’re training all our officers on that. It will be done in February. That was a major hurdle that had been holding us back as a city for decades. You can feel the change [in culture] when you meet officers. They are now more confident and comfortable because they know the rules and understand our community a lot better.