Keller: City 'holding the line during difficult times' - Albuquerque Journal

Keller: City ‘holding the line during difficult times’

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Despite a pandemic and what he called the city’s “decades-old challenges,” Albuquerque has remained resilient and is pushing toward a brighter future, Mayor Tim Keller said during his annual State of the City address Saturday.

In the first such address of his second term, Keller told a crowd of several hundred about the city’s efforts to combat crime and homelessness, and revitalize Downtown, saying the community has not given in to despair, despite some “very dark days.”

“What we share today is the hard work of so many to tame these challenges, and tackle them with trademark spirit and determination,” he said. “I believe the real state of the city is a city that is holding the line during difficult times. It is a city that has not, and will not, stop advancing toward a horizon that brings out the best in Albuquerque.”

Though the city experienced overall crime drops in 2019 and 2020, violence has continued to be a sore spot during the Keller administration. In 2021, the city saw 119 homicides, its highest total in recorded history. Halfway through 2022, there have been 55 homicides and the city is on pace to match that record high.

In a pre-recorded video played during Saturday’s speech, Police Chief Harold Medina said his department had so far this year arrested or charged 57 homicide suspects and made more than 1,800 felony arrests.

And Keller used his address to reiterate other ways the city is trying to improve public safety.

That includes his administration’s effort to assemble numerous local public agencies to form crime-abatement strategies and policies. The Metro Crime Initiative – started in 2021 – will convene again this summer, he said. He also spoke about the Albuquerque Community Safety Department, or ACS, which launched last year to provide an alternative response to 911 calls that would otherwise go to police and firefighters. Staffed by social workers and other specialists, the department now has 20 units taking calls related to homelessness, public inebriation and behavioral health, and is planning to expand to 24/7 coverage.

“Cities across America are actually looking to us for leadership in this area,” Keller said of the department.

In a moment of deja vu, Keller said Saturday that APD is seeking release from at least some of the federal oversight it has been under since 2015. It aims to show compliance with about a quarter of the terms inside its U.S. Department of Justice settlement agreement.

Keller had made a similar announcement during his 2020 State of the City, but the release never happened. In an interview Saturday, Medina said APD had in 2020 “backslid” on compliance, which, along with the pandemic and other factors, thwarted its expected reprieve from some of the terms. But the DOJ already has OK’d the city’s current attempt to remove 62 paragraphs from the agreement and let APD monitor itself in those particular areas, which include behavioral health training, officer assistance and support.

During Saturday’s speech, Keller also noted that homelessness is “on display in so many areas in our city.” He said the city needs an all-of-the-above approach, citing rental-assistance vouchers, affordable housing development, hotel-to-apartment conversions, and the long-awaited Gibson Health Hub. Located in the old Lovelace hospital on Gibson, the city has begun work to create an on-site medical respite facility and medical sobering center, plus a Gateway Center homeless shelter, though the shelter component – which voters in 2019 approved funding for – remains tied up in neighborhood appeals.

In one of the most animated moments of his 40-minute address, Keller countered criticism that the city does not do enough to clean up encampments, saying crews “legally” disband dozens each week, but will not pursue what he deemed simplistic and inappropriate solutions.

“We will stand up against shallow ideas that will neither work, nor are remotely humane,” he said. “We will not round up people; we will not force people on to a bus; we will not arrest people who have not committed an arrestable crime; we will not pull your officers off your 911 calls for somebody passed out under a tree.”

Keller spoke inside the boiler shop at the Albuquerque Rail Yards in Barelas, a cavernous space that now boasts new flooring and a new roof. Keller cited the Rail Yards redevelopment and the planned Rail Trail – which will help connect the Rail Yards to Civic Plaza and even Old Town – as two components of a multi-faceted plan to improve Downtown.

“When finished, this is going to be a place that will literally reshape our landscape and create a landmark like the BioPark and Tram that future generations will see as defining characteristics of the Duke City,” he said of the Rail Trail. “It’s a pretty cool project – I think we should clap for that one.”

City Council Vice President Dan Lewis, however, said after Keller’s speech there was little to celebrate and the mayor “doesn’t seem to know what city he is living in.” He said Keller’s administration has failed on crime and homelessness, despite large budgets. While the council has repeatedly approved funding for 1,100 police officers, the city has fewer than 900 today, he said. He also criticized the mayor’s recent proposal – also approved by the council – to raise resident trash rates by $1 to help cover encampment cleanup, despite the city’s current high revenue levels.

“The mayor’s State of the City ignored the crisis we are in, and was filled with excuses and blame for his failure to enforce our laws, and keep our city safe and clean,” Lewis said in a statement.

Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.

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