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ABQ’s fire ‘fee’ another hidden tax on business

Another day, another tax on small businesses passed by the city of Albuquerque. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this one – the tax increase came disguised as something called a “Fire and Life Safety Fee.” With such a dramatic name, you would think this fee was passed in response to a public outcry about life-and-death matters, such as inefficiencies in the fire code inspection process.

Unfortunately, the reality is far more frustrating for those who believe, like I do, that small business is the key to growth and prosperity for our city. The Fire and Life Safety Fee (FLSF) increased fees on small and medium-sized – read: local – businesses in order to fund such critical expenses as a raise in the fire chief’s salary and a $370,000 project to rename the “Albuquerque Fire Department” “Albuquerque Fire Rescue.”

This fee is required of all new and existing businesses that require a fire inspection in order to receive their permits, including residential spaces used for business, “including child day care and adult assisted facilities” – that’s a direct quote from the city’s press release. Notably, fees on smaller businesses occupying up to 500 square feet have increased by 250%, while big business such as Wal-Mart have not seen any increase at all. Medium-sized businesses with a square footage between 1,501 and 3,000 received a 66% increase.

You read that correctly: Not only has the burden of bloated city government increased on our businesses, but that burden has increased only on small and medium-sized businesses that are the heart of our city’s economy. Albuquerque is already considered unfriendly to small business: A report from Inc.com gave the city a “D+” for policies relating to small business. We cannot afford to place more burden on our entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

The process of opening a small business in Albuquerque is complex, whether you’re a young artist looking to open a studio or a team of caretakers looking to open a day care. Those of us opening small businesses don’t have an army of lawyers navigating city bureaucracy like the big-box retailers do; yet it is those same small businesses that have now been hit with an increased fee – for what, exactly? “Annual fire extinguisher and fire prevention demos,” if the press release regarding the FLSF is to be believed, but more likely we will see it flushed down the drain of overhead and administrative costs.

The Keller administration already increased the budget for the Fire Department – sorry, Albuquerque Fire Rescue – by approximately 21% to $100 million from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2020 through an increase in gross receipts taxes. Has the department gotten 21% more functional? Have small and medium-sized businesses thrived so well that they are 21% richer?

We all know that the fire and rescue services that AFR provides are essential, but it is important to separate the importance of that mission from the administrative overhead and tertiary services, such as “yearly fire extinguisher demos,” that serve more to enrich the government than to provide for the people. At the very least, if the 21% increase to a $100 million budget isn’t enough, Mayor Tim Keller and Chief Paul Dow should make the case honestly and openly to the public, rather than trying to sneak a small-business tax in through “fees” for “Fire and Life Safety.” We, as citizens of this city, deserve at least that much honesty from our leadership.

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