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City of ABQ may have to face ‘new normal’ in budget process

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The city of Albuquerque’s 2021 budget may look exactly the same as it does this year – at least for the time being – but one top official said it’s time to prepare for a “new normal” in city spending.

Amid the rapid upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials are struggling to plan for what will happen next month, let alone next year.

That has thrown the city’s standard budget season into tumult.

Ordinarily, Mayor Tim Keller would have to give his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to the City Council by April 1 for its review and amendments. Albuquerque and other local governments are then required to submit interim budgets to the state of New Mexico by June 1. But with “the current economic uncertainties” related to coronavirus, the state is allowing local governments to re-submit their current budgets instead of 2021 versions.

“Those are sort of placeholder budgets,” Albuquerque’s Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said Thursday. “Then we can sort of really drill down to what the next year looks like as we have more information.”

The city’s current year budget is $1.1 billion. Gross receipts tax is the city’s single largest revenue stream, accounting for about 37% of the budget.

But concerns about the coronavirus have at least temporarily shuttered many businesses. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this week ordered the closure of shopping malls, gyms and spas and limited operations at hotels. She also restricted restaurants, breweries and bars to takeout and delivery service only.

Albuquerque City Council President Pat Davis said the city’s gross receipts tax revenue had been trending higher than expected for months, which could be enough to float the city during the inevitable slowdown expected in the final months of the 2020 fiscal year.

“But beyond that, it’s going to be a new normal for a while,” he said.

He said potential infusions from the federal government could make a difference but said the economic fallout from coronavirus will require the city to “look seriously” at many expenses in 2021. He cited potential victims as employee raises, further expansion of youth programming and new initiatives like eliminating fares for city bus service.

“Basically,” he said, “any expansion of programs based on anticipated new revenue is probably on pause.”

Davis said the city is likely achieving some savings right now since most of its facilities are currently closed.

Despite that, most employees continue working. Nair said that 10% of the city’s approximately 6,000 employees are still reporting to City Hall, though they are trying to practice the “social distancing” recommended to thwart any potential spread of coronavirus.

She said about 40% are teleworking, and another 50% continue in their normal “remote” work situations, including police officers, firefighters and garbage truck drivers.

The city’s police force is actually growing this week – 50 cadets graduated, though their ceremony was canceled.

Nair said about 200 people – primarily those who have customer-facing jobs at facilities currently closed – are home on paid leave without duties.

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