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Rio Rancho higher-ed tax forum brings barbs

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Voters will decide Aug. 20 whether to cut 1/4-penny GRT by 50 percent

Opposing sides on Rio Rancho’s impending higher education tax election traded barbs Thursday night with accusations of forcing voters to choose between education and public safety.

The election on Aug. 20 will ask voters whether or not they support reducing a quarter cent tax by 50 percent. Councilors who support the reduction want to establish a new one-eighth tax to raise money for the city’s police and fire departments.

City Councilors Chuck Wilkins and Mark Scott championed the cause for reducing the tax at the forum organized Thursday night by the Rio Rancho Observer at Rio Rancho High School. About 100 people attended.

Former University of New Mexico regent Don Chalmers and local businessman Paul Howell spoke in support of keeping the tax unchanged.

Voters approved the tax in 2008. It brings in about $2 million annually, which has helped UNM build its Rio Rancho campus.

Asking voters to reduce the tax would be reneging on a promise and harm Rio Rancho’s future economic development, Chalmers said.

“I say promises made should be promises kept,” he said

Wilkins and Scott countered that the city saw a 15 percent increase in crimes between 2011 and 2012 and that its police and fire departments desperately need new equipment and more staff.

They accused UNM of not keeping promises to offer full four-year degree courses, saying the campus is almost empty.

“It’s your money, you decide how you want to spend it,” Scott said to the audience.

Chalmers said President Bob Frank now has a plan to offer dual credit courses for Rio Rancho High School students by the end of 2013 and will have 10 full four-year courses available at UNM West within a year.

He and Howell suggested the City Council should look elsewhere in its budget to find money for public safety.

“I think it’s a false choice,” Chalmers aid, “You’re asking, do you want public safety or education. I think we need both.”

Wilkins and Scott were skeptical, questioning why it took the university so long to produce the plan. The campus opened in January 2010.

Earlier this week, at an informational meeting Wilkins held, things got heated when several UNM supporters accused the councilor of damaging the city’s credibility by trying to reverse a measure – the tax – which a majority of voters previously approved.

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