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Collecting from utilities is only fair

In recent letters to the Albuquerque Journal, opponents of Bernalillo County’s proposed Taxpayer Protection Act have been doing their best to misrepresent both the purpose and the impact of the new ordinance. A look at the legislation makes it clear that the ordinance lives up to its title.

The proposed ordinance will enable Bernalillo County to collect user fees from utilities that operate in the public right-of-way. Right now, the city of Albuquerque collects a 3 percent utility franchise fee from everyone who operates a business or lives within city boundaries. But utility companies are not required to pay any user fees when they place their facilities on public property outside city limits.

Contrary to free market principles, that gives some ratepayers an unjustifiable advantage and leaves the rest of us taxpayers to pay the well-documented costs of allowing utilities to use the public right of way.

In their letters to the Albuquerque Journal, Carla Sonntag, lobbyist for the New Mexico Utility Shareholders Alliance, and County Commissioner Wayne Johnson argue that we should protect that long-standing subsidy, one that benefits New Mexico’s for-profit utilities and a minority of Bernalillo County residents at the expense of the vast majority of us who live within the city of Albuquerque.

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They overlook the fact that county government incurs very real costs when utility companies use public property and that all Bernalillo County taxpayers pay when utility companies don’t.

For example, multiple studies demonstrate that any cut into a county road significantly reduces the life of the pavement, no matter how well that damage has been repaired. Utility work in public right of way continues to cost taxpayers millions of dollars to repave those roads years ahead of schedule.

Add to that the staff time and equipment required to evaluate, permit and inspect utility projects on county property – and the dollars taxpayers have paid to acquire right-of-way – and it adds up to a sizable financial burden.

State statute is crystal clear that counties have the authority to charge user fees to compensate taxpayers for the “actual expenses” generated by utility companies. Over the past several months, representatives of New Mexico’s largest for-profit utilities have been meeting with the county staff to reach agreement on exactly how those costs will be quantified in a right-of way use agreement.

The Taxpayer Protection Act is based on the fundamental principle of fairness to all Bernalillo County taxpayers and the elimination of an unwarranted subsidy that shifts costs from one group of residents to another.

Free markets depend on government maintaining a fair and equitable tax structure for all residents, not choosing winners and losers. If you live in the city of Albuquerque, you’re the loser under the current structure.

I can’t fault the Utility Shareholders Alliance for wanting to protect their investments – but that should not be portrayed as protecting the interests of either New Mexico’s business owners nor county ratepayers.

I agree with Sonntag when she applauds commissioners who “base their decisions on what is best for their constituents and the county as a whole.” That is exactly what the Taxpayer Protection Act is all about – protecting the interests of all Bernalillo County residents rather than a subsidy for a select few and the for-profit utilities that serve them.

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