Metro Beat: ABQ City Council votes on federal relief spending, gas tax - Albuquerque Journal

Metro Beat: ABQ City Council votes on federal relief spending, gas tax

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s list of proposed stimulus money expenditures includes improvements to the Balloon Museum. (Journal file photo)

It was a busy night for the Albuquerque City Council, with legislative body’s second May meeting taking longer than a road trip to Denver.

Somehow the council’s annual budget vote barely contributed to the seven-hour run time, as the panel quickly passed the $711 million general fund spending plan for fiscal year 2022. As council budget chairwoman Klarissa Peña noted, it was a pretty “painless” process. (Read about the budget here.)

But the meeting minutes really piled up during a separate discussion about money — specifically how to spend the city’s federal COVID-19 windfall.

Mayor Tim Keller in April released his proposal for how to use the first half of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation, or roughly $57 million.

On Monday, the council had a chance to rework it, a process that took over two hours. At one point, the council spent 45 minutes discussing a Brook Bassan amendment that proposed dropping a single word from the original proposal bill.

In the end, the council approved six amendments before voting 8-1 to approve about $60 million in federal stimulus spending.

What stayed the same: The council signed off on most of Keller’s proposal. The approved allocations include:

  •  $3 million for city employee premium/hazard pay
  •  $5 million to renovate the city’s Pino Yards facility
  •  $4.2 million to help residents who do not qualify for other stimulus
  •  $4 million to fix the Albuquerque Convention Center’s leaky roof and improve energy efficiency
  •  $3 million for gunshot-detection software
  •  $3 million for Local Economic Development Act grants
  •  $2 million to repair the roof and make other updates at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum
  •  $1 million for improved Downtown lighting
  • $900,000 for a Tingley Beach splash pad and other improvements

What changed: Keller allocated $8 million for various business grants, including $2 million specifically for the arts and entertainment sector. The council maintained the spending, but passed an amendment that earmarked $500,000 of it for a proposed art center in the Sawmill neighborhood.

The council also stipulated that $250,000 from Keller’s $1.3 million appropriation for housing vouchers/eviction prevention/domestic violence programs goes specifically to the Albuquerque Street Connect program.

The council also rewrote a line in the bill that designated $5 million for renovations at Albuquerque Police Department’s Downtown headquarters. Councilor Bassan, who proposed the change, said APD’s various substations are becoming “more and more dilapidated” and she wanted to ensure the city had flexibility to use the money for other facilities outside of Downtown.

Her successful amendment ultimately requires a system-wide APD facilities needs assessment before any of the money can be spent and loosened the language so the money could be used at the main station or any substation.

But prior to its passage, Bassan’s amendment sparked an extensive debate about whether the city had a clear idea of what the police department most needed. Though APD Chief Harold Medina stressed to the council the importance of the Downtown renovations, Councilor Pat Davis asked why Keller’s administration had not previously expressed an urgency to upgrade the headquarters despite a 2018 report outlining the deficits — a report Davis said he did not know about until Monday’s meeting.

“It makes me feel like it’s not a priority and that it’s just a way to spend money, and that’s what’s frustrating,” Davis said.

What was added: Keller’s bill proposed $1 million for new police cars, but Councilors Bassan and Klarissa Peña successfully introduced an amendment to increase the spending to $4 million and encompass vehicle purchases for other city departments. The pair found the extra $3 million by essentially borrowing against the second $57 million federal relief installment the city will get next spring.

What was subtracted: The mayor’s $1.3 million proposal for a youth boxing gym expansion at the Jack Candelaria Community Center in the San Jose neighborhood did not survive the council intact.

Benton, who represents San Jose, authored an amendment that reallocated $1 million for a sound wall in the community — something he said was a bigger priority for an area struggling with railroad noise.

“I’ve spoken to residents — no one had heard of this (boxing gym expansion); it wasn’t a resident-driven proposal, it was a boxing-driven proposal,” said Benton, who then read a letter from a San Jose resident expressing the importance of the sound wall by explaining how the railroad noise is present day and night and is sometimes loud enough to shake homes.

While the amendment left $300,000 for the boxing expansion, Peña vocally opposed the shift. She said the youth boxing community needs a safer place to operate and she couldn’t support taking money away from the project.

“As you know, kids who participate in boxing struggle, and this is a way and a means for them to find things to do in their community,” said Peña, who joined Bassan and Don Harris in voting against the reallocation for the sound wall.

Benton’s amendment passed on a 6-3 vote. Supporters included Davis, who called it an “environmental justice” issue, and Diane Gibson who said she thought it would improve the neighborhood’s quality of life and perhaps also have an even deeper impact on an area often short-changed.

“I think it will give them maybe — hopefully — even a psychological boost that they’re not at the bottom of a totem pole anymore,” she said.

Shortly before 10 p.m. Monday, the council passed the federal relief spending plan with only Davis voting against it.

Davis said in an interview that leaders had not done enough to solicit public input on the spending plan and that he felt it directed too many dollars toward renovating city facilities instead of families and programs.

The bill now heads back to Keller.

The mayor on Tuesday praised the council for maintaining the public safety and business-related investments, but said he is still reviewing the amendments, including the reassignment of boxing gym dollars.

“We support sound walls and boxing gyms; unfortunately, the way this was handled, neither are being fully funded and we’ll look into other options for both,” Keller said in a statement.

YOUR TWO CENTS: The City Council on Monday also decided to put a new gasoline tax out to voters.

Benton had introduced legislation in 2020 proposing that the city put a 2-cent-per-gallon tax on an upcoming ballot. The revenue generated would pay for public street and roadway system projects, including rehabilitation to improve safety and to “enhance usefulness for all transportation and mobility users,” including cars and public transit but also “pedestrians, including the physically-challenged, and bicyclists,” according to his bill.

The council actually passed Benton’s legislation last November, voting 5-4 to put the gasoline tax on a future ballot. At the time, specific election was not identified in the bill. Benton said the council could decide that with a later vote but that it would likely be included on the 2021 local election ballot — featuring a mayoral race and five city council seats — or the 2022 general election ballot with no municipal races.

But in an unusual turn of events after the council’s November approval of his bill, Cynthia Borrego — who initially voted in favor — expressed second thoughts later in the same meeting. She asked the council to reconsider by taking another vote.

Her “no” vote would have killed the bill, so Benton instead asked the council to postpone action until a later meeting.

The matter returned to the council on Monday.

The council again passed his legislation on a 5-4 vote after an amendment indicating the council intended to put it on the 2022 ballot.

Supporters included four who voted for the bill the last time: Benton, Davis, Gibson and Jones. They were joined by Bassan. This time nobody requested a redo.

Borrego, Harris, Peña and Lan Sena voted against putting the 2-cent tax out for voter approval.

Mayor Keller’s office on Tuesday raised concerns about the plan, saying in a news release that the city is already investing in infrastructure and that a new tax could “disproportionately impact lower-income residents.”

“When it comes to this bill, we appreciate where it’s coming from, but have concerns about the regressive nature of this policy, the impact it has on working families, as well as legal questions regarding ballot timing,” the mayor said in a statement.

While the cost of the tax would likely vary significantly by individual, cars in the U.S. use an average of 474 gallons of fuel per year and trucks consume 660 gallons, according to a February 2020 analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Using those numbers, a new 2-cent-per-gallon tax in Albuquerque would cost car drivers $9.48 per year and truck/van owners $13.20.

AUDITOR ON BOARD: The city of Albuquerque finally has a new auditor.

The council on Monday voted to make Nicole Kelley, head of the Office of Internal Audit, filling a job that has been vacant for about 1½ years.

It should be a relatively easy transition for Kelley, who has been serving as the acting city auditor since the December death of the previous acting auditor, Ken Bramlett.

The city auditor is one of the two top independent accountability officials in city government. The Office of Internal Audit conducts internal audits of city operations aimed at reducing city costs and improving efficiency and internal controls. For example, its recent audit of the city’s contracts with Heading Home (for services at the city’s West Side homeless shelter and “wellness hotels”) found duplicate charges resulting in about $65,000 in overpayments.

(You can see more of the office’s work here.)

The auditor, along with the city’s inspector general, report to a citizen committee — the Accountability in Government Oversight committee — instead of the mayor or city council.

The position has proven somewhat difficult to fill of late.

The city’s last full-time auditor left in 2019, and the city struggled to find a permanent replacement; the last time the job was posted, all three finalists dropped out before the city council could vote on who to hire.

The city reopened the search in October.

AGO conducted interviews, and recently forwarded council a list of its top three candidates: Kelley, John Cashmon, who previously worked as the internal audit director at the San Diego Unified School District; and Rory Galter, an assistant auditor with the city of Dallas.

Prior to Monday’s vote, Kelley told the council she was proud of the work she’d done with the city already. She was initially hired in March 2020 to be the internal audit manager, and she said the office at the time had been decimated.

“Almost the entire (internal audit) team had left, so I was tasked with rebuilding almost the entire team,” she said. “Within six months of my arrival, we became fully staffed with the exception of the city auditor (position).

“I’m really proud to say the entire team is still here, and we’ve made it through a pretty difficult period.”

BAG BAN COMEBACK: More than a year after Mayor Keller temporarily suspended enforcement of the city’s plastic bag ban, councilors have been questioning when he will reinstate it.

During Monday’s meeting, Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair indicated it would likely happen this summer.

Keller first issued the stay of enforcement via an emergency order in March 2020 — only about three months after the Albuquerque plastic bag ban went into effect.

Nair said Keller would lift the suspension via the same process. Though the administration has not made a firm decision, she told the council the preliminary plan was to announce the change in a June order but not make it effective until August so that businesses had time to prepare.

“We want to give stores and restaurants and everybody enough time to get the supply chain and protocols in place so they’re not caught flat-footed,” she said.

Councilor Gibson urged faster movement, saying she’s been getting constituent questions about the reinstatement and that everyone should have been preparing.

“I would encourage you to speed that up if at all possible,” she told Nair. “Our vendors should have seen this coming.”

FACILITIES MANAGER WITH A BADGE: As the council discussed the upgrades Keller had proposed for APD’s Downtown headquarters, at least one city councilor appeared to learn for the first time that APD was using a detective as its facilities manager.

Councilor Benton pressed APD leadership about why a sworn officer would have such responsibilities.

“I want that sworn officer working out here on the beat in front of my house; I don’t understand the rationale that a sworn officer is a facilities manager,” Benton said.

APD Chief Harold Medina responded that the department is trying to unwind a personnel setup that had sworn officers in positions that could be filled by civilians, including facilities and fleet managers.

“As soon as we’re able to, we’re going to do everything we can to get sworn people out where they could be working a sworn function,” Medina said.

DIRECTOR DEPARTURE: The council on Monday celebrated Stephanie Yara, who is leaving her position as director of the council services office.

Councilors lauded Yara for her professionalism, humor and budget acumen but also for adeptly navigating a job that comes with nine different councilor bosses who often have nine different priorities.

Councilor Jones jokingly described it as managing to “keep us all together without killing each other and numerous and sundry other people we came into contact with.”

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