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Sales tax increase: We don’t need it – county can get spending under control and help mentally ill

Bernalillo County — we cost more than you think!

OK, so that’s not the county’s new marketing tag line, but it will be an unfortunate reality if a couple of commissioners get their way.

At issue is the current proposal to raise the tax you pay on everything from clothing to computers, pencils to prepared food.

County staff originally brought this proposal to the commission in an attempt to fill a projected – if somewhat inflated – $53 million budget shortfall for the 2016 fiscal year by imposing a 3/8 cent gross receipts tax which would raise an estimated $60 million.

If you’ll remember, the commission had already voted back in October to invade the county’s $36 million reserve fund to pay for a $24 million budget shortfall in this fiscal year.

At the time Commissioner Lonnie Talbert and I warned that all things being equal, the county was facing at least a $24 million deficit for 2016 and sapping the county’s rainy day fund to pay for 2015 without addressing the county’s spending problem would lead to at least a $24 million deficit in 2016. Further, there would only be $12 million remaining in reserve to pay for it.

The majority on the commission didn’t listen and even proceeded to pad their own discretionary funds with $250,000 of reserve funds divvied up amongst themselves.

Now we face what Talbert and I feared and predicted – a tax increase to pay for the county’s lack of fiscal discipline at a time when working families continue to struggle to make ends meet.

County staff didn’t get what they wanted, either. Commissioner Debbie O’Malley reduced the original proposal by 1/8 cent ($20 million) and then dedicated half of the remaining 2/8 cent increase to behavioral health ($20 million).

While reducing the increase by a third is a step in the right direction, dedicating $20 million to a program without any kind of plan is irresponsible.

There’s broad agreement that Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are facing a behavioral health crisis. However, it’s important that the county seek collaboration from the city, state, University of New Mexico Hospital, nonprofit and private sectors before throwing $20 million of your hard-earned tax dollars at a problem and effectively striking out alone.

If the county starts with a $20 million price tag, you’ll get a program that spends $20 million regardless of whether or not it achieves its objectives – which like the program itself, have yet to be defined.

If we are to have a sustainable mental health solution it’s important to assemble a coalition of governmental, non-profit, and private sector entities who are committed not only to solving the problem but funding it as well.

Remember, the county is already funding behavioral health care through the $90 million health care mil and through the Metropolitan Detention Center. Granted, current funding doesn’t cover the entire spectrum and MDC is hardly the optimum place to provide care, but both underscore the county’s commitment to behavioral health and the need to create an effective, sustainable, inclusive solution.

As commissioners, we have an obligation to manage your money well and not to put need above common sense. Like you, we should tighten our belts and get our spending problem under control first.

If we fail to do so, even a tax increase would only provide partial and temporary relief.

In addition, this tax increase would simultaneously increase the size of Bernalillo County government by nearly 10 percent with one ill-advised vote.

It is possible to achieve both a balanced budget and provide services for those with behavioral health problems. It will take patience and a willingness to make tough decisions. It will take working with others and the realization that the behavioral health problem is bigger than the county.

Finally, it will take courage and the determination to achieve our goals without taking the easy way out and placing an even heavier burden on the families of Bernalillo County.

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