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Editorial: APS has yet to make strong case for proposed tax hike

Within the past 20 months, both Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque unilaterally raised consumers’ gross receipts tax rates, saying the resources they had weren’t sufficient to meet their obligations. And now the Albuquerque Public Schools district is jumping on the bandwagon, asking voters to hike the property taxes it receives for capital projects by a staggering 19.4 percent.

For the owner of a $220,000 home, the increase would amount to $146.67 a year, raising the APS portion of property tax from $766 to about $913 and putting APS at the top of the list of taxing authorities. If approved, homeowners in the district would see an overall property tax increase around 4.7 percent.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that this tax increase can’t be rammed down the public’s throat like the county and city tax hikes. Voters will have final say on the proposed APS tax increase, and while school elections historically draw a low turnout, this one could be a very different story. Ballots for the February election are scheduled to be mailed to all registered voters in the APS district. Given the reality this election will not be decided by a dedicated few who cast ballots in person, APS officials will need to make a solid case for the increase.

So far they’re not doing a very good job.

Among those pushing the increase is APS Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder, who says “APS has not asked for a tax increase since 2006. We have ridden out the recession and ridden out construction costs for a long time.”

Yes, construction costs have skyrocketed, and we’ve endured a long recession. But those are the same challenges Albuquerque families and businesses have been dealing with, only they don’t have the luxury of raising their neighbors’ taxes to pay for the kitchen remodels they need or the building expansions they’d like to undertake. They live within their means because that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.

It’s also worth noting that even though the APS tax rate hasn’t changed in more than a decade, the district has enjoyed a steady increase in its property tax revenue – year after year after year. That’s because property values can go up 3 percent annually, automatically resulting in more tax revenue for taxing authorities, including the state’s largest school district.

APS says it needs more money for building projects and maintenance, but district officials have yet to say which project(s) would have to be shelved if voters reject the proposed increase. Officials do point to a priority list of capital projects – including 11 new, 23 ongoing as well as maintenance, security and technology work – that would be paid for with the $1.12 billion to be collected over six years through the proposed mill levy and school bond. But they offer no clue as to which projects the district would have to do without if the measures fail at the ballot box.

Or what the district has done with the hundreds of millions it has received for capital projects in previous years (beyond a cursory 14-item list of projects without dollar figures on its website).

Or why this increase is needed in spite of declining enrollment – from a high of 86,867 students in 2012 to 83,019 this school year.

Meanwhile, many residents are asking: If there’s such a need for improvements at schools throughout the city, then why is APS spending millions of dollars for a sprawling teacher training center at the southwest corner of Louisiana and Comanche? The Berna Facio Professional Development Facility is slated to be a training and teaching center for teachers and staff, and of course great teachers need and deserve great training. But as one Journal reader asked more than a year ago, “Did they consider using any of the many existing meeting/event facilities in the city?”

APS is asking for a significant property tax increase, and that increase may very well be necessary. But if the district is going to ask voters to pony up even more of their hard-earned money for APS projects, then Albuquerque school officials first need to show categorically that (1) they have been responsible with the funding they have already received and (2) what they, their staff and students will have to do without should the bond and mill increase fail.

And they haven’t done that yet.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.