Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
In March 2018, less than four months after he took office as Albuquerque’s mayor, Tim Keller signed a bill raising the city’s gross receipts tax. The City Council already had passed the tax hike, but it never went to voters for approval, a step a campaigning-for-mayor Keller had said he would take before any increase.
The tax boosted the city’s annual operating resources by about $50 million, going mostly to public safety. It is, Keller said, one of the wisest actions of his first term, despite the associated back-tracking.
“I do believe at that point we had a public safety and, in some ways, fiscal emergency,” Keller said of the then-$40 million structural deficit. “I had to make a decision that I knew would be unpopular – and contrary to what I had said – but I think it’s important for leaders to learn.”
For Keller, the decision represents the chasm between being what he calls a “well-intentioned candidate” who had wanted the mayor’s job since sixth grade to the person actually making the day-to-day calls from City Hall’s 11th floor.
That real-world experience is why he thinks voters should grant him a second term.
“I’m 10 times the mayor going forward than I was when they elected me to take this job in the first place because of what I’ve learned and what we’ve been through,” said Keller, who is facing fellow Democrat Manuel Gonzales and Republican Eddy Aragon on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Now 43, the Albuquerque native acknowledges the city still has significant, ongoing challenges – such as a record number of homicides and rising homelessness – but believes he and his administration are best qualified to keep guiding it.
The pandemic, he contends, demonstrated that.
Keller considers those dramatic and uncertain moments early in the pandemic among the most pivotal of his first term. City operations, he said, could have come to a screeching halt. Instead, the city of Albuquerque mounted a considerable senior meal pickup/delivery operation, established child care options for essential workers, kept buses running and maintained Planning Department operations to ensure continued construction activity. The city also carried out several business relief programs.
“Those were all choices,” Keller said. “Most people chose to close; we chose to stay open as a city and to keep the safety net open.”
City government, he noted, also worked to reopen swimming pools, libraries and even the zoo as early as it could following early-pandemic shutdowns.
While state government issued the overarching public health orders and dictated most of the related restrictions, Keller said the city developed a novel, multi-department effort to ensure local compliance with the rules – focusing on education rather than penalties – and also played a key role in area vaccination efforts.
Keller has repeatedly compared Albuquerque’s COVID-19 metrics to other Western U.S. metros, publicly highlighting its generally more favorable infection and vaccination rates. The city’s performance during the pandemic, he said, has attracted outside notice and become an economic development asset.
“The pandemic has reset how people evaluate where they want to live, work and play. And, in that reset, Albuquerque is a net winner compared to these other cities, and that has done more to change our economic value proposition than any explicit strategy we’ve tried in the past 20 years,” Keller said.
Running a city through such upheaval also has served to strengthen the leadership he installed across city government, he said, forcing quick decisions, but also flexibility in a trial-by-fire environment.
“That’s training that is invaluable (and) that they can use going forward,” he said.
But, pandemic aside, Keller said he has learned much since taking office, including not to make promises such as his 2017 commitment not to raise taxes without voter approval. With four years of new insight, he says promises make sense only in “fantasyland.”
“You can’t do that as the mayor – at least an effective mayor – of Albuquerque,” he said.
For instance, his 2017 platform included reducing crime and returning the depleted Albuquerque Police Department to 1,200 officers.
Property crime is falling, according to APD data, but violent crime has been unrelenting. The city has broken its annual homicide record twice during Keller’s first term – including this year, surpassing the previous high with months to go – a morbid milestone that critics lay consistently at the mayor’s feet.
Keller, in turn, cites national trends. He said the city will do what it can to turn it around – offering police hiring bonuses, adding new technology and convening criminal justice partners – but that Albuquerque is not immune to rising violence.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that there’s something we could have done that would have prevented an increase in homicide,” he said. “I think all around the country, it’s just shown that that’s just not true right now.”
APD, meanwhile, remains well short of his staffing goal, despite a 2018 officer pay raise – facilitated, Keller said, by that gross receipts tax increase – and a concerted recruiting effort. The city has managed to bring in about 100 new people per fiscal year, Keller said, but has not been able to overcome the wave of retirements and other departures.
The exodus included Keller’s hand-picked former chief, who the mayor fired a year ago in a move he defines as courageous, but also regretfully late. He says now he should have acted sooner.
“I lost a year and our city lost a year. If I would have gotten rid of him earlier, it would have helped,” Keller said of Mike Geier, who has himself blamed Keller’s administration for micromanaging APD, and prioritizing public relations and photo opportunities.
Keller defends his administration’s communications strategy, saying citizens expect him to be visible.
He held regular, sometimes even daily, media briefings early in the pandemic – more even than Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – and a 2020 citizen satisfaction survey showed most residents rated the city well for its communication efforts during that period.
Even before the pandemic, Keller held frequent news conferences – at turns donning a neon vest to demonstrate pothole repair and using a bucket lift to install a new LED bulb in a streetlight – and maintained an active social media presence with posts on city-related issues, but also holiday celebrations with his wife and two children, and his metal music fandom.
Keller said he would sometimes prefer fewer cameras in his life, but he believes in bringing “your whole self to the job,” and social media provides an avenue for that and greater transparency.
“I think our city demands a mayor be out in public,” he said.
The bottom line, he said, is that being Albuquerque’s mayor is a difficult job; the former state senator and state auditor even contends it is the hardest elected office in New Mexico.
The scrutiny is intense, the challenges – such as crime – are complex, and the simple solutions are in short supply.
“I think everyone knows inside that these are tough problems. And, if there was some easy, quick-fix answer, we already would have tried it,” said Keller, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s of business administration degree from Harvard Business School.
The incumbent believes he has set some promising programs in motion, such as the new Albuquerque Community Safety Department. Announced during a national protest movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder, ACS will dispatch people with more specialized training – such as social workers and mental health professionals – to certain 911 calls, such as threatened suicides, public intoxication and homelessness. The department has been slow to take root and has not publicly released its organizational plan, but has some staff in place already taking calls.
Keller said it will have multiple benefits, including reducing the burden on APD – he wants to remove at least 10,000 calls per year from the police realm – but also connect people to the right services and, he said, address at least some of the police-related trauma that communities of color have faced.
He said the city has laid the foundation for an improved economy, from landing Netflix in 2018 to the creation of a small-business support office and a development center to assist minority-owned businesses.
He expects the Gateway Center – the long-discussed homeless shelter and services center he started pushing early in his first term – to finally begin providing overnight accommodation this winter, supplementing what research has shown is an insufficient number of emergency shelter beds across Albuquerque. It’s modeled after similar programs in such cities as San Antonio, Texas.
“Frankly, we should have had it 20 years ago,” Keller said.
The city could also get a new multipurpose soccer stadium should voters OK a special bond on the Nov. 2 election. Though public opinion on the proposed venue – where New Mexico United would play – is mixed and opponents have questioned the city’s investment, given other persistent needs, Keller has been bullish on the idea, saying “it’s time” for a new sports venue to support family entertainment.
He said the city as a whole is still reaching its potential.
“I believe that our best days are ahead of us – and … they’re also in the near future,” he said.