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Mayor, City Council have different capital project priorities

Mayor Tim Keller talks about proposed traffic relief solutions for the Balloon Fiesta at a news conference last week. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/ Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller stood in a dirt lot next to Interstate 25 on a sunny morning last week to talk traffic – specifically the snarls so commonplace during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

A new freeway ramp near the park could help alleviate backups at the annual October spectacle he called “the Super Bowl of New Mexico.” Estimated to cost $2.5 million, Keller described the ramp as a great return on investment.

But whether the city will make that investment any time soon remains unknown – the City Council eliminated the project in its recent rewrite of the capital improvement program slated to go before voters this fall.

It’s just one of several ways the mayor’s $127 million capital project wish list for this November’s general obligation bond election differs from the substitute version recently introduced by the council – a rewrite the mayor said surprised him.

“It’s a little unfortunate, but there’s plenty of time left on the clock,” he said.

The council has to vote on a final capital program next month, so it’s still possible that version will represent more of a compromise between Keller’s administration and the city’s legislative branch.

In fact, Councilor Isaac Benton said it’s not uncommon for the proposal to keep evolving until the last minute.

“Usually, until the night it’s acted upon, things are in motion and in flux,” he said.

The council’s plan drops the Balloon Fiesta ramp and also dramatically reduces the allocation for a planned centralized homeless shelter. Keller had sought $7 million for the shelter – which he has called one of the city’s most pressing needs – while the council plan allots $3 million.

But the council significantly boosted funding to other areas.

It designates a combined $7.8 million for a pair of storm drainage/pump station projects compared with Keller’s $2.8 million. It quadrupled the line item for Albuquerque Fire Rescue vehicles to $4 million.

The council also proposed $9 million for projects not on the mayor’s list, including a North Domingo Baca swimming pool ($1.7 million), a Westside Indoor Sports Complex ($1.5 million), a Cibola Loop library ($1 million) and a West Central Visitor Center ($1 million).

The ultimate decision rests with the council; Keller does possess line-item veto power, but the council would need six of nine members to override any such veto.

Keller said recent conversations with councilors gives him hope that money will shift back into the projects like the ramp and the shelter.

“I think we’re where we should be in the process,” Keller said last week. “We proposed our stuff, they proposed theirs, and now we try to come together on as much as we can.”

Councilor Trudy Jones, who chairs the council committee working on the capital budget, said the council is still refining its plan.

“The council is working together to put together a budget that nearly suits what we all like, and we think the mayor will be happier with it,” she said.

Benton said he would like to see more money go into the homeless shelter. He said he never personally objected to the ramp in building the council’s list, but sometimes other matters take precedence.

Money for projects like the ramp has “to come from somewhere else in the budget, and it’s true you’ve got nine councilors with different priorities.”

He, for example, supported the increased funding for a new storm water detention pond and pump station at Marble and Arno, which he characterized as a longtime need that is finally close to fruition.

“Sometimes in the past in these capital budgets, storm water systems have taken a hit and I’m not OK with that,” Benton said. “I happen to represent the areas where it all ends up.”

Keller’s administration has also sought state capital outlay funding for many of the same projects in his city bond election program, and has expressed hope that the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will see them as “statewide” priorities worthy of large allocations.

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