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Editorial: Bernalillo County residents count tax hikes, not sheep

It’s a common practice in land management to use sheep to control unwanted vegetation, as the animals graze low and can eradicate an entire plant. And in Bernalillo County, which has a sheep as its spokesanimal, there is plenty of grazing on taxpayers’ hard-earned green.

And BernCo Bernie is hungry. Again.

In a county that has seen property taxes rise more than 20 percent in the past 10 years, that will see taxes go up again to pay for open space, and will impose new franchise taxes that get passed along to consumers and a higher minimum wage that affects business owners and customers, it appears the gross receipts tax will go up by $40 million a year come July 1.

Bernalillo County has seen its total expenditures climb from about $226 million in fiscal 2005 to $369 million in fiscal 2014. That pays for things like law enforcement and firefighters, the jail and salaries, roads and sewers. There are also juicy items like half a million bucks in annual discretionary spending for commissioners’ pet projects.

In the fiscal 2015 budget, 44 percent of revenue comes from property taxes and 32 percent from gross receipts, with other sources and the fund balance making up the rest.

To put the new proposal in context, the quarter-cent increase (to the tax shoppers pay on most goods and services, with food an exception) is expected to generate four times as much as the county needs to replace just $11 million it is losing in state funding, starting in phases in fiscal 2016. The state authorized counties to raise taxes in order to ease its phase-out of “hold harmless” funding, provided after lawmakers repealed the tax on food. The proposed increase will not go to voters for approval, and the commission is expected to take a final vote next month.

Proponents of the increase say the extra money will help cover a projected $53 million shortfall, caused in part by a $17 million investment debacle, as well as a new mental health program that’s heavy on compassion and light on details.

It means that in Albuquerque, the gross-receipts tax rate would climb from 7 percent to 7.25 percent. In the unincorporated county the rate would jump from 6.0625 percent to 6.3125 percent. Granted, it could have been worse. County Manager Tom Zdunek wanted to go for the full three-eighths of a percent authorized by the state, enough to raise more than $60 million.

County officials are correct in saying they need a balanced budget. But that’s easy if you spend what you want, then jack up taxes to cover the difference.

Never one to be inclined to suggest that there should be limits on government growth, County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley says that means “we have a window of opportunity. I think we need to take advantage of it.” Her fellow Democrats, new Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins and Art De La Cruz, bought into her tax-early-and-often rationale and voted for the initial plan. Sadly, De La Cruz wavered from his earlier reluctance to raises taxes more than the $11 million being lost.

Commissioner Wayne Johnson and fellow Republican Lonnie Talbert might as well have been shouting into an empty, overgrazed field as they opposed the proposal, demanding county officials “get control of our spending. We’re all going to have to share a bit in the sacrifice, and it should start up here on this dais.”

Apparently not with this flock.

At some point the rest of BernCo Bernie’s shepherds will have to face the fact their taxpayer-funded vegetation is being nibbled down mighty close to the roots.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.