ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Monologues are common inside the meeting chambers of City Hall.
David Letterman-style “Top 10” lists are not.
That didn’t dissuade Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson last week, when he mocked the title of a proposed bill – the “Taxpayer Protection Act” – by offering up his own Top 10 list of more accurate titles. They included the “We Need More Money Act” and the “Illegal Revenue Enhancement Act.”
Supporters of the bill weren’t laughing, and they shot down Johnson’s formal proposal to rename it the “Utility Taxation Act.”
All that back-and-forth centered on the rather mundane subject of franchise fees. The essential question facing the County Commission is how much to charge utility companies that bury lines beneath county roads or otherwise use public rights of way.
The commission voted 3-2 to accept introduction of a proposed ordinance that would require companies using county rights of way to pay a fee. A final decision on the proposal is expected early next year.
Johnson himself won approval for a “Rate Payer Protection Act” last year, severely restricting how much the county could charge utilities. But that was when Republicans controlled the County Commission.
Democrats reclaimed a majority after Debbie O’Malley won election in November 2012.
Earlier this year, the county administration proposed authorizing ongoing fees for the use of rights of way.
County officials estimated they could raise about $6 million a year by charging large utilities a 3 percent fee on their revenue. It was intended to help offset the $6.9 million the county said it spends because of the shortened life of roads after utility cuts.
The current proposal doesn’t call for a 3 percent fee. It simply requires the utility company to negotiate an agreement with the county to set the fee.
People who live within Albuquerque city limits already pay franchise fees. Johnson and other opponents, however, question whether counties have legal authority to charge them.
Imposition of a 3 percent fee would cost natural gas customers in unincorporated areas about $1.50 a month, the New Mexico Gas Co. has said.
Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins said the title of the new proposal was simply a response to the name of Johnson’s original measure. Furthermore, she said, taxpayers in Albuquerque and throughout the county shouldn’t have to subsidize utility companies whose work costs the county millions of dollars a year.
The title “does reflect a very important principle here,” Hart Stebbins said. “We want people to pay their fair share, pay for what they use.”
Commissioner Art De La Cruz said utility companies don’t have to pass the costs on to their customers. But either way, “they have an obligation to pay rent for using the people’s property,” he said.
Hart Stebbins, De La Cruz and O’Malley, all Democrats, voted in favor of introducing the proposal. Against it were Republicans Johnson and Lonnie Talbert.
Talbert said the tough economy makes it a particularly bad time to impose new costs on companies or their customers. “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think (companies) are not going to pass this on,” he said. “They will.”
Johnson said if the county needs money for roads, it ought to talk openly about raising taxes, not “hiding” a fee in someone’s electric bill. He opposes raising taxes, too.
“If it’s about money, which this undoubtedly is, we should find another way to approach this, a more honest way,” Johnson said.