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Tax election a divisive issue

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Stinging comments in public meetings, published opinion pieces and the Facebook sites of rival campaign groups in recent weeks reveal that the upcoming special election that will affect the tax that benefits the University of New Mexico’s Rio Rancho campus has become a highly divisive issue.

The Aug. 20 election will ask voters whether they support reducing the higher education gross receipts tax from a quarter-cent to one-eighth of a cent.

If approved, a majority of city councilors, Tim Crum, Lonnie Clayton, Mark Scott and Chuck Wilkins, want to introduce a new one-eighth cent tax for public safety needs.

“We have a problem. We need to fix it,” Wilkins said at an election forum on Aug. 1. He characterized the choice as “more first responders (versus) more empty buildings.”

Groups who support this include the Rio Rancho Fire Fighters Association and Rio Rancho Police and Communications Association.

City residents will not have an opportunity to vote on the public safety tax. If voters approve reducing the higher education tax, the council will vote separately on an ordinance to create the public safety tax.

Arguments for reducing the higher education tax, advanced via informational meetings, a public forum and by the Committee for a Safe Rio Rancho’s Facebook page, say the UNM campus is underused and the university hasn’t justified the need for the full $2 million the tax brings in annually.

At the Aug. 1 forum, Scott slammed the school for teaching classes on “UFOs and zombies,” referring to components in the American Studies spring schedule.

If reduced, the tax would still yield $1 million a year, which is sufficient to help UNM add more campus buildings, they say.

They say the crime rate increased 15 percent between 2011 and 2012, and the city needs to address understaffing and aging equipment in the police and fire departments.

Wilkins has already drafted an ordinance to create a new one-eighth of a cent tax that would be dedicated to public safety.

Some residents see the issue as being forced to decide between education and public safety.

“If you’re asked, ‘Do you want public safety or education,’ I think we need both,” said Don Chalmers at the Aug. 1 forum.

Chalmers is a former UNM regent and the chairman of the Committee for Higher Education that is campaigning to keep the tax unchanged.

Groups in this camp include UNM and UNM West leaders, Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce and Rio Rancho Public Schools board.

Their position is that Rio Rancho voters approved the tax in 2008. Asking them to reduce it would break a promise and tarnish the city’s integrity. They say UNM has a long-term plan for Rio Rancho, and the tax revenue represents an investment in education and the city’s future economic opportunities.

They question the public safety fears, saying national statistics show Rio Rancho is the safest city in New Mexico.

Mayor Tom Swisstack said he hasn’t taken a formal position but he doesn’t want to see voters forced to choose between education or public safety.

Three Republican Rio Rancho legislators, Reps. Jason Harper and Tim Lewis and Sen. Craig Brandt, raised concerns that Wilkins wanted to create the new tax without a public vote.

Wilkins plans to use a provision approved by the Legislature this year that allows municipalities to establish a tax by council action.

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