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Berry: New mayor inheriting an economy on the rise

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mayor Richard Berry, in his final State of the City address, said Albuquerque’s next mayor will inherit an efficient city government that is living within its means, a growing economy and close to $1.2 billion in infrastructure projects that have been built or are in the pipeline.

He also addressed the city’s rising crime rate in his one-hour speech, saying he fears that hiring more police officers by itself won’t solve the problem and calling for more resources for the local District Attorney’s Office.

The mayor struck an optimistic tone in his speech, which focused largely on what he said has been accomplished over the last eight years he has served as mayor. He pledged to have a positive handoff to the next mayor.

“The state of our city is strong,” he said, receiving a standing ovation at both the beginning and end of his remarks.

“I stand here proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

He delivered the speech at a luncheon hosted by NAIOP, an organization that represents commercial real estate developers. More than 400 people were at Marriott on Louisiana for the event, but the speech was also live streamed on the city’s website and shown on GOV TV.

There was no direct mention in his speech about his job approval numbers plummeting in just the past year, in part due to rising crime and the controversy over the controversial Albuquerque Rapid Transit project. Berry did allude to tough decisions his administration has made and to taking heat for some of those decisions. His approval rating was at 68 percent just five years ago and remained high until recently. It dropped to 34 percent in the latest Journal Poll, published last week.

Job growth

On the economy, Berry noted that Albuquerque lost more than 23,000 jobs in the two years before he became mayor and that the city lost another 6,700 jobs during his first two years in office. But, he said, since July 2012, Albuquerque has seen 46 straight months of job growth, and has added 25,000 jobs.

He said the city is now just 1.3 percent away from peak employment of the housing boom in 2007, and the unemployment rate has dropped by 30 percent while he has been in office. Median incomes are up and poverty is down, Berry said, adding that the city has also enjoyed seven consecutive years of gross receipts tax growth.

“We have seen a 75 percent increase in construction gross receipts tax collections over the past three years,” he said.

Berry said the gains have come at a time when the city has lost federal jobs — a sector of the economy that Albuquerque has traditionally relied on for job gains. And, he noted, tourism is up.

The mayor highlighted his administration’s efforts to rein in spending at City Hall, saying that in his first few months as mayor, the city faced a $90 million budget shortfall and was entering some of the worst years of the Great Recession.

“We took a city government that had grown beyond its means, and we got spending under control,” Berry said. “We have kept the growth of city government right at the rate of inflation during the past eight years, which I believe is a hallmark of fiscal responsibility.”

Many infrastructure projects

The hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure projects that have been or will be substantially completed by the time the new mayor takes over include the Paseo and Interstate 25 interchange, a renovated Convention Center, a world-class baseball complex on the West Side, and a 50-mile activity loop around the city, Berry said.

“Over the past eight years, we have planned and/or built nearly $1.2 billion in new infrastructure and amenities for the city of Albuquerque, and we did it without raising your taxes,” he said.

On ART, which will transform Central Avenue into a rapid transit corridor with a nine-mile stretch of bus-only lanes and bus stations, Berry acknowledged the disruptions that construction has caused. He said it’s about 80 percent finished and is ahead of schedule. The city has said it will be done by the end of the year.

“I want to say thank you to all the businesses and everybody along Central Avenue who has been able to weather the storm with us,” Berry said. He thanked staff, members of the congressional delegation, city staff, the City Council and everyone else who backed ART, saying he’s confident the project will pay off for Albuquerque. Already, he said, the city is seeing building permits along the corridor totaling $337 million.

Worried about crime

Berry said he fears crime in Albuquerque will not improve significantly until reforms that have been implemented are revisited. Specifically, he noted the significant drop in the inmate population at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, the “rigid” case management order that has resulted in many cases being tossed and new rules that restrict the use of bail and favor releasing defendants from jail prior to trial.

“Of course, I know that, like many cities around the country, our police department needs more officers,” he said. “But frankly, when APD officers are arresting the same people over and over again, that’s not a policing problem. It’s a criminal justice problem.”

Still, he said he expected that the Albuquerque Police Department would have 925 officers “in the queue” for the next mayor, individuals who will have either completed the academy by then or prequalified for the academy. The department currently has about 850 officers, and Berry has said the ideal number should be 1,000. Several mayoral candidates, however, have said the department needs 1,200 officers.

Two months left

“We have two months left,” Berry said. “We’re going to sprint, sprint to the finish line.”

Berry opted not to seek re-election. There are eight candidates on the ballot vying to replace him.

Election Day is Oct. 3. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will advance to a runoff in November. The new mayor takes office on Dec. 1.

“Allow your mayor to make honest mistakes and to fail forward when things don’t work out as planned,” Berry urged toward the end of his speech.

Following the luncheon, Berry acknowledged feeling sentimental as he delivered his remarks.

“This place has been good to me and my family,” he said… “I went from loving my city to adoring my city.”

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