$110M infrastructure push splits City Council - Albuquerque Journal

$110M infrastructure push splits City Council

A newly released $110 million city bond proposal would include funding for the planned aquatic center at North Domingo Baca Park. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque leaders are set to act next month on a newly released proposal to borrow $110 million to help build – or at least put money toward – a host of infrastructure projects around the city.

A Northeast Heights swimming pool.

Renovations at the police department’s Downtown headquarters.

An awning for Civic Plaza.

A “sobering center” at a site to be determined later, and about $19 million worth of undefined housing investments.

City councilors sponsoring the plan say it addresses community concerns about public safety and homelessness but also invests in amenities that will make the city a better place to live without having to raise taxes.

They say they are seizing an investment opportunity made possible by favorable interest rates and voters’ rejection of a soccer stadium bond measure on the city’s Nov. 2 ballot. While voters did this month approve $140 million in general obligation bonds to pay for a range of other city projects, they specifically struck down the stadium.

“Being that the $50 million for the soccer stadium ended up not passing, why not use this funding for things that will make Albuquerque safer, cleaner, better?” Councilor Brook Bassan said of the plan, which she is co-sponsoring with Klarissa Peña.

But some critics say the timing of the bill is suspect and that sponsors are attempting to rush a significant financial decision just weeks ahead of a major city leadership transition.

As it stands now, the $110 million bond proposal – posted on the council’s legislative portal late last week and formally introduced without discussion during Monday’s council meeting – would be decided at the council’s next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 6. The bonds, backed by the city’s gross receipts tax revenue, would not require voter approval as long as seven of nine councilors support them.

If the Dec. 6 plan holds, the vote would be among the final legislative actions for nearly half of the council, as two of nine members lost in the recent election and two others did not run this year. Their terms end Dec. 31 and their successors take office the next day.

The bill’s timeline is intentional.

“I think right now is a really good time to be able to recognize the continued priorities that were in the council before we have a new turnover of the council, at which point priorities could change,” Bassan said.

But incoming councilor Dan Lewis – who defeated current Council President Cynthia Borrego in the Nov. 2 election – has a different take.

“Four city councilors who would make a decision on this won’t even be here in January,” Lewis said. “For that reason alone we need to deal with this with a new council in January.”

Sitting City Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton – who are among the five who will still be in office next year – say they too are troubled by the timing.

“It just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Benton said.

They argue that it is problematic to make a decision that would financially bind the city for decades just a few weeks after making the details public.

Paying back the proposed bonds would take about 20 years, according to the city’s chief financial officer, starting at $5.7 million annually and eventually rising to $10 million.

The city recently paid off some older bonds, freeing up the money to make the payments without raising taxes. But issuing $110 million worth would consume all of the GRT the city has allocated to capital project debt and foreclose the opportunity to move the funds – which are flexible – back into the city’s basic operating budget.

“It’s very short-sighted and looks selfish,” said Davis, who called it a “grab bag of pet projects.”

He said he’s also concerned about the proposed bond issuance because of lingering economic uncertainty and recent city history. He noted that the city in 2019 moved quickly to issue bonds to fund nearly $30 million of “sports tourism” projects. Officials planned to pay back the bonds with what was then a booming lodgers tax revenue stream, only to have the pandemic eviscerate the hospitality industry. The city has had to use general fund money to help make the payments.

Brook Bassan

Bassan said she consulted Mayor Tim Keller’s administration while developing the bill and the project list.

Keller has voiced support for the plan, and a spokeswoman for his office noted that GRT revenue “has been strong despite the pandemic,” allowing the city to pursue important projects.

“This investment plan puts $110 million into addressing our city’s most pressing challenges, while continuing to lift up the civic spaces that people will enjoy for generations to come,” Keller said in a statement Monday.

Bassan contends the plan is going through the appropriate checks and balances – including city finance and bond officials – and that the public can be part of the process. She said residents can contact their councilors prior to the planned Dec. 6 vote and speak during that meeting.

She said the bond plan is not rushed but rather represents the necessary “urgency” of capitalizing on current interest rates.

The councilor noted that many – though not all – of the projects slated to benefit from this bond package are already known to the public, including some that voters have supported through previous bond measures.

That includes the North Domingo Baca Aquatic Center in her Northeast Heights district, which would get $12 million if council approves the bonds.

It would still require $7 million more to fully fund – which Bassan said she will seek during the upcoming state legislative session – but Bassan said the bond proposal would help bring some other projects to fruition.

That includes $10 million to complete first-phase funding for the Cibola Loop Multigenerational Center, $4.4 million for the second phase of the Albuquerque Police Department Southeast Area Command overhaul and $3 million to pay for the planned BMX pump track at Los Altos Park.

Klarissa Peña

Peña said plugging funding gaps was a priority when making the list.

“We wanted to make sure that this money is used to finish some projects,” she said, noting that it would yield $10 million for a public safety center in her Southwest Albuquerque district, which is enough for a fire station.

But while the city has been setting aside funds for many of these projects for years, Benton and Davis said some have little detailed planning behind them. Selling bonds for them would leave a “bunch of money sitting in the bank while we figure all this out,” Davis said.

Some on the list – including the sobering center, the Civic Plaza awning and the police academy upgrades – are not specifically noted in the city’s approved 2021-2030 decade plan for capital improvements.

Mayoral spokeswoman Ava Montoya called that plan a “strategic 10-year guide.”

“But these are urgent issues now,” she said in a statement.

Councilor Lan Sena said she pushed to include the sobering center in this bond program because it is a recognized “gap” in the local health care landscape, and people who need such facilities often wind up in the hospital instead. She said it is the kind of project community members who opposed the stadium bond argued for instead.

Keller’s spokeswoman called it a “key action item” from the Metro Crime Initiative.

Sena said $6.7 million of the proposed GRT bond’s $25.6 million housing allotment should be enough to create a sobering center, though she said no site for the project has been settled. Sena, who is leaving office at year’s end after losing in the Nov. 2 election, said she hopes the future center would somehow be incorporated into the city’s Gateway Center system, which is providing shelter and services to people who are homeless.

She rejects the argument that outgoing councilors should not be voting on a $110 million bond package.

“If that were the case, terms … would end Nov. 3,” she said, “but they don’t.”

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