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Looking For Loose Change

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Following up on a City Council request to inventory unpaid taxes, fines and fees and figure out how to collect on the debt, Santa Fe city officials recently revealed that they’ve gone after several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of unpaid lodgers taxes.

That’s commendable. Lodgers taxes — seven percent of the room rate at Santa Fe hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments — underwrite the bonds issued for the Community and Convention Center, and also help advertise the city as a tourist destination. The hospitality industry as a whole benefits from both.

But the bigger and more troubling issue behind the City Council’s request is that apparently all kinds of money may be owed to the city that just isn’t being collected. And it adds up. Just the back lodgers taxes that the city has so far filed to collect total more than $300,000. (That’s about 4 percent of the $7 million the city did collect in room taxes last year.)

As a recent audit of the city’s parking division revealed, unpaid parking fines alone total $600,000 just for the last fiscal year, and nearly $7 million over the last decade. Plus the city stopped selling parking permits three years ago despite having plenty of long-term, downtown space in its parking garages.

The City Different remains stupendously inefficient at collecting on parking tickets, more than a decade and a half after the municipal judge who liked to dismiss fines in lieu of charitable contributions — usually a Thanksgiving turkey — was ousted by voters.

Santa Fe collects only about 16 percent of the amounts owed for parking tickets. It’s a good thing the city is not in the business of collecting, say, property taxes, or most local government institutions, including the public schools, would be broke.

City Councilor Chris Calvert had the right idea when he put forward the request that the city tidy up its financial house and make certain it’s getting what it’s owed. And as Calvert noted, it’s better to do that than to saddle city residents with another tax hike — something the council has been more than willing to do in recent years.

Calvert’s measure is the civic equivalent of pulling off the sofa cushions and rounding up the loose change fallen underneath. As what amounts to a minor fiscal housekeeping chore, it’s long overdue.

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