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Bernalillo County’s $42M tax increase on shaky ground

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernalillo County commissioners are backing away from a plan to raise $42 million in taxes.

The proposal may yet survive in some form, but two commissioners whose support is crucial are now expressing reservations about different parts of the plan.

The tax increase was scheduled for action late Tuesday, but the five-member commission voted instead to consider the proposal in a special hearing, probably next week.

At stake is a proposal to raise the tax that shoppers pay on most goods and services. In Albuquerque, the tax rate would climb from 7 percent to 7.25 percent, or 25 cents on a $100 purchase.

The new tax would raise about $42 million a year – with half dedicated to mental-health services, the other half to basic government operations.

The decision to postpone came after one commissioner – Art De La Cruz, a Democrat whose support appears to be critical for passage – said he would vote for the tax only if certain conditions are met. For one thing, he wants the size of the tax scaled back.

And to support the half of the tax dedicated to mental health, he said, the county would have to agree to a series of “accountability” measures, including automatic repeal of the tax within a year unless the commission votes to renew it.

Meanwhile, Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins, a Democrat whose support also appears to be necessary, expressed reservations about the size of the tax, too. She said after the meeting that she isn’t inclined to support the half of the tax for general government operations.

The money was supposed to help the county bridge a budget gap of $40 million to $70 million next year.

“I’m going to give my fellow commissioners who believe we can balance the budget without the revenue the opportunity to propose specific cuts,” she said.

Hart Stebbins still strongly supports the part of the tax dedicated to mental-health services – an idea that was favored by 69 percent of voters when it was presented as an advisory question on last year’s general-election ballot.

Taxing options

The commission has a variety of options. It could cut the tax in half and impose just a one-eighth of 1 percent increase, with the revenue dedicated to behavioral health programs.

Or the county could impose the quarter of 1 percent increase and then repeal one of its other taxes. That would have the net effect of raising taxes by 3/16ths of 1 percent – meeting De La Cruz’s requirement to scale back the size of the increase. De La Cruz wants the increase to provide only enough revenue to offset some state funding that’s being reduced.

The juggling is required because the county’s authority to raise taxes is limited to only certain increments.

Whether any of those ideas will be pursued should become clearer next week, when the commission is planning its special hearing. A date hasn’t been set.

Setting conditions

De La Cruz, in any case, is emerging as a swing vote. The tax needs support from all three Democrats on the commission to overcome the opposition of the two Republicans, Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert.

To impose the mental health side of the tax, De La Cruz on Tuesday outlined several conditions necessary for his support:

  • He wants the jail to cut mental-health costs in half within a year of the county’s starting operation of a crisis-triage center in the community. The center would serve as a place where police could take people struggling with mental illness rather than to jail.
  • The jail would not accept inmates with mental illness from Albuquerque police or other outside agencies unless they have a contract to pay for the person’s mental health care while in custody.
  • The crisis center would only treat people who are mentally ill. It wouldn’t treat people for substance abuse.
  • The tax increase would expire next summer, unless renewed by the County Commission.

Some of those ideas ran into immediate opposition Tuesday.

Jennifer Weiss-Burke, whose son died of an overdose about three years ago, told commissioners that addiction and mental health can’t be separated easily. A problem with one may lead to the other, she and others said.

“They’re one and the same,” Weiss-Burke said. “It goes hand in hand.”

In an interview, Mayor Richard Berry said it would be unfair to expect police officers to determine immediately whether the person they arrest is suffering from mental illness, drug addiction or both. Turning them away at the jail, he said, “is a dangerous proposition.”

Berry opposes the tax increase.

Public testimony

The county accepted public testimony Tuesday even after postponing action on the tax. For an hour, commissioners heard stories of both recovery and heartbreak.

Men and women who’ve struggled with addiction and mental illness – and their families – took turns speaking for two minutes each in support of raising taxes to pay for new mental-health services. The commission also heard from opponents, though they were overwhelmingly outnumbered. About two dozen people testified.

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