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Taos County ballot error casts doubt on college’s votech plan

SANTA FE – Election officials are trying to figure out what to do about a ballot mix up that may have spoiled Northern New Mexico College’s effort to reopen the college’s original campus in El Rito as a center for vocational-technical education.

A property tax proposal that was supposed to be decided by voters living in certain precincts covering school districts in three counties made it onto the ballots, as planned, in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties. But it somehow didn’t appear on the ballot in two precincts in Taos County, as it should have been.

The proposal for a 2-mill property tax increase to provide a recurring funding stream of about $2.4 million a year to pay for the operation, maintenance and capital improvements at the El Rito campus received 62% support in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties.

But the final outcome is in doubt because voters in the Taos County precincts, part of the Mesa Vista school district that is mostly in Rio Arriba County, didn’t have a chance to vote on the tax levy.

Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito campus. (Journal File)

The New Mexico Secretary of State’s office confirmed that there are 913 registered voters in the two Taos County precincts.

That means that even if all of them had voted against the tax, it still would have passed because 3,828 people in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties voted in favor and 2,319 voted against it, according to unofficial results. The results also show that only 56 people living in the two Taos precincts voted on Tuesday.

“It’s a little disappointing,” said NNMC President Rick Bailey in a phone interview Wednesday, the day after the election. “I would have liked to have had this issue resolved by yesterday, but at the same time I’m optimistic about the support we got from the community and the strong endorsement we received.”

Bailey said he’s not sure how the question didn’t make it on the ballots in Taos.

“I will say that the college was incredibly meticulous in making sure that we met all the requirements we need to be on the ball in all three of these counties,” he said.

Taos County Clerk Anna Martinez did not respond to phone and email messages from the Journal on Wednesday.

The Secretary of State’s office in a statement to the Journal said that “an administrative error made by a county clerk” led to the problem in Taos County.

Asked what can be done about it now, spokesman Alex Curtas said in a statement, “Statutorily, the Office of the New Mexico Secretary of State is obligated to provide a report to the State Canvassing Board which shall include any discrepancies found in the election returns. Affected parties may also explore options to challenge an election in district court.”

Bailey acknowledged that the situation may have to be resolved by a “legal option” and that he had already spoken with the college’s legal counsel about it.

The ballot proposal would have funded a branch community college district for the El Rito campus.  Re-opening the campus is something supporters have been working to achieve for a decade. The college, now based in Española, plans initially to offer plumbers and pipe fitters and electrician courses at El Rito.

In order to make it happen, the college got support from the Chama Valley, Española, Jemez Mountain, Mesa Vista and Pojoaque Valley school districts. People living within the boundaries of those school districts were eligible to vote on the measure.

Bailey said he was not deterred by the setback. “We have overcome so many obstacles to get to this place. We will get through this,” he said.

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