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Council OKs price gouging bill

Kleenex and hand sanitizer sit on desks in Albuquerque’s Office of Emergency Management in March. City council has passed an update to the city’s emergency powers ordinance that prohibits price gouging during a civil emergency. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Do not expect to get rich quick by selling hand sanitizer in Albuquerque during a viral pandemic.

Heeding a request by Mayor Tim Keller, the city council on Monday passed an update to the city’s emergency powers ordinance that prohibits price gouging during a civil emergency and gives the city attorney the authority to issue fines of up to $500 and potentially take offenders to court.

The change provides a needed mechanism for the city to investigate complaints about spiking prices, said Councilor Lan Sena, who co-sponsored the bill with Isaac Benton.

In promoting the legislation, Keller’s administration explained the necessity by noting that there are no specific statewide statutes that prohibit price gouging.

“Consequently, the City of Albuquerque currently has no way to protect Albuquerque residents from those who take advantage of times of emergency to place profit above human life and community need,” the administration wrote in an analysis submitted with the legislation.

The ordinance makes it illegal to raise prices on a good or service by more than 20% during a declared emergency, though there is an exception if the seller can prove that their own costs spiked due to supply chain factors or other market forces outside their control.

City Attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. said his office will only investigate potential violations upon the receipt of a complaint.

The city attorney’s office can demand documents from businesses, according to the legislation, but Karen Meyers of the city’s Consumer Financial Protection Initiative said that the investigations would likely be narrow.

“It would be focused on the nature of the complaint or the problem, so if someone is reporting that toilet paper is being price gouged, you’re going to focus on the cost of toilet paper, so the burden should be pretty limited,” she told the council.

The city’s citizen contact hotline has received seven complaints about price gouging in the last three months, according to city spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn. She said the city has been referring them to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, which has been investigating such tips during the pandemic.

The state attorney general’s office contends existing consumer protection laws prohibit price gouging even if New Mexico has no specific price gouging statute, Chief Counsel Matt Baca said this week. The office has received nearly 300 complaints since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but Baca said most have been resolved through an informal dispute resolution process.

The city ordinance would apply to the current COVID-19 pandemic, as well as any emergency as declared by federal, state or local authorities.

Councilor Brook Bassan said the ordinance would serve to protect not only consumers but also the businesses already “doing the right thing” by their clientele.

“I appreciate the thought that’s been put in to that,” she said.

Also: In other action Monday, the council continued a recent theme by creating another avenue for businesses to temporarily increase their footprint.

With many businesses still capacity-restrained due to COVID-19, the council approved an ordinance allowing retail establishments to incorporate outdoor spaces normally reserved for parking into their operations during the current pandemic.

Sponsors Diane Gibson and Cynthia Borrego were previously successful in promoting legislation that allowed restaurants similar expansion opportunities.

 

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