The organization responsible for maintaining ditches and levees, as well as distributing water for irrigation throughout the valley, is raising taxes and water rates.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District increases are included in the $25.8 million budget the district’s board approved for next year on a 5-2 vote. Vice chair Adrian Oglesby and member Chris Sichler cast the no votes.
Oglesby said the district could have made more cuts and that the burden is being placed too heavily on non-irrigators. He said the conservancy needs to look at a longer-range plan for financial stability.
“My hope is that we find a way to increase revenue in a more thoughtful way,” he said, “so it’s predictable, and taxpayers can be aware and plan accordingly.”
The board voted to raise the water service charge by $3, bringing the total to $31 per irrigated area.
It also will raise the property tax rate, which is levied against the approximately 90,000 property owners who live within the district boundaries – whether they irrigate or not. The increase means a homeowner with $100,000 of assessed property value will pay $417 a year instead of $397, said Tom Thorpe, spokesman for the conservancy. The increases will bring in about $600,000.
The measures will take effect on July 1.
The budget is a 20.5 percent – or $4.4 million – increase over the current year. That includes $5.7 million for a levee project south of Socorro, but the district expects to get reimbursement from the federal government, according to board chairman Derrick Lente. He said the work will bring the levees up to new federal standards issued after Hurricane Katrina and will mean the area will no longer be considered part of a flood zone.
Lente said it was “about time we raised taxes because we’ve been pulling from reserves.” The next step is to audit the organizational structure of the conservancy, he said.
“We need to see how and where we can run the district more efficiently,” he said. “We need to spend prudently.”
Thorpe said the district, which has been operating with a deficit for the past three years, made budget cuts before considering the increases. Even with the hikes, the district will still be approximately $5 million short and will use its cash reserves to balance the budget.
“Raising taxes is never a popular thing,” he said. “We tried real hard to avoid it,. but we realized we were never going to make up our deficit.”
The district is a 10-mile-wide strip that spans from Cochiti south to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge just south of Socorro. It’s responsible for maintaining 1,200 miles of ditches, levees, drains and canals, and for managing the flow of water used for irrigation.
The district, Thorpe said, has not raised taxes since before 2002 and nobody can remember the last time the water service charge was increased.