Question: When can local elected officials redirect funds for other purposes not specifically authorized by voters in a tax, levy or bond issue?
Case in point: In March of 2008, Rio Rancho voters approved this gross receipts tax measure by a margin of 63 percent: “Shall the City of Rio Rancho impose a one-fourth (1/4) of one percent (1%) Municipal Higher Education Facilities Gross Receipts Tax with revenue from the tax to be used for (1) acquisition, construction, renovation or improvement of facilities of a four-year post-secondary public education institution located in the municipality and acquisition of or improvements to land for those facilities or (2) payment of municipal higher education facilities gross receipts tax revenue.”
These new revenues enabled UNM West to open its campus in 2010. Recently, the University of New Mexico announced a second building, hosting orthopedic clinical, academic and research services will break ground in August.
These buildings will continue to add enormous benefit to citizens of Rio Rancho and Sandoval County. I am proud to have supported the tax measures that made these additions to our quality of life possible.
We now know over $3 million of the higher education facility GRT was used to pave Broadmoor to the entrance of City Center and the UNM community hospital. Two million-plus dollars of the same higher education GRT have also been used to pay for the new park under construction near Santa Ana Star Center and City Hall.
Is that what voters approved? Nothing in the 2008 and revisited 2013 tax measure mentions parks or roads — only the “acquisition, construction, renovation or improvement of facilities,” that is, buildings, for higher education.
The city has defended the action, contending the $5 million for roads and a park benefits the UNM academic campus. I fail to see anywhere in the voter-approved language allowing use of these tax dollars for street extensions and a park.
Maybe the city found an attorney who suggested these projects would qualify for the use of these GRT dollars. But as someone with 23 years of municipal government experience, including 13 years as a city manager in New Mexico, I understand the applicable state statute is very strict.
These dollars can only be used for projects that are defined in the ballot question approved by voters. The city, by law, cannot redirect or otherwise use these dollars if it does not strictly adhere to the language in the tax question.
However desirable an extension of Broadmoor and a new park may be at City Center, is not the city bound by the wording of the Municipal Higher Education Facilities GRT language voted upon?
I would be very interested in the legal opinions of New Mexico’s Attorney General and State Auditor regarding the $5 million spent on roads and a park, and not on higher education buildings called for by the ballot measure.