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Tax boost for BioPark work gets voter OK

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

The big cats at the zoo might soon have a little more room to roam.

A proposal to raise taxes in Albuquerque to pay for renovated exhibits, repairs and other capital needs at the BioPark had support from about 56 percent of Albuquerque voters, according to unofficial returns published by the city clerk’s office.

Julie Miller Rugg, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico BioPark Society, said she was overwhelmed by the support. Horns blared in the background as she and others celebrated near the aquarium’s shark tank.

“This will make all the difference in the world,” Miller Rugg said. “This is life-changing for the BioPark.”

Turnout was dismal in Tuesday’s municipal election – the lowest percentage in at least 40 years, according to figures reviewed by City Clerk Natalie Howard.

A little over 8 percent of voters – or 28,846 people altogether – cast ballots this year. The next-lowest total was 11 percent in 2007, she said.

Howard called it a disappointment.

“It would be nice for the public to be involved more in the decision-making process for our city,” she said.

About 12 percent of voters turned out in 2011 and 20 percent in 2013’s mayoral race.

In any case, the vote totals suggest City Hall isn’t in for a major shift in power.

City Council incumbent Brad Winter, a Republican and retired educator, had about 58 percent of the vote in his Northeast Heights-based district, according to the unofficial returns.

For the open seat covering Nob Hill and the Southeast Heights, Democrat Pat Davis had a whopping 67 percent of the vote in a three-person race. He would replace Democrat Rey Garduño, who’s retiring.

Democrats will maintain their 5-4 edge on the council – not enough to override vetoes issued by Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican.

Winter said he looks forward to working on bipartisan efforts to improve services for people struggling with mental illness or addiction.

“I really want to make sure that works,” he said after returning home on Election Night. “That could change the way we handle mental-health issues in the city.”

Winter, the council’s longest-serving member, said he is committed to serving all four years of his new term. He first won election in 1999.

Davis, a former police officer at the University of New Mexico and in Washington, D.C., said he is eager to get to work.

The election comes as the Albuquerque Police Department prepares to carry out a series of reforms mandated under a settlement with the Justice Department.

“We have to get APD back on track, and I really want to be the council’s point person on making that happen because of my experience in law enforcement and the respect I have for the officers,” he said.

Charter amendments

Albuquerque voters are ready to make at least one shift in the balance of power. They overwhelmingly supported a City Charter amendment that will require City Council confirmation for the hiring of future police and fire chiefs.

The mayor now has sole authority over the chiefs, as with most city department heads.

The change comes amid increased scrutiny for the Albuquerque Police Department. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation last year found a “culture of aggression” within APD and pattern of violating people’s rights.

Voters rejected another proposed charter amendment. The proposal – aimed at saving space on the ballot – would have eliminated a requirement that the complete text of proposed charter amendments appear on the ballot. Instead, only the title and summary would have to be published.

Voters passed a third City Charter amendment. It’s aimed at reducing the need for costly special elections.

It calls for sending legislation proposed through petition drives to voters only during regular or general elections – not immediately in a special election.

Bonds

Also approved were $119 million in general-obligation bonds to finance streets, parks, drainage and a variety of other projects. It won’t result in a tax increase, officials said, because new bonds are issued as old ones are paid off.

BioPark tax

The tax increase for the BioPark will add one-eighth of 1 percent to the tax levied on most goods and services in Albuquerque. The gross receipts tax rate will climb from 7.1875 percent to 7.3125 percent in July next year.

It follows a similar tax increase passed by Bernalillo County commissioners earlier this year – before which the rate stood at 7 percent. The county tax is aimed at general operations and launching a new network of behavioral-health services.

The BioPark tax is expected to raise some $255 million over 15 years for the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach. The revenue is earmarked for repairs, exhibits and other capital needs.

A 20-year master plan proposed for the BioPark calls for creating five times as much space for the wild cats to roam, a shaded area for visitors to watch the elephants play and electric carts to move people around on hot days.

But much of the work proposed is much more mundane – updating sewer lines and basic infrastructure at the zoo and other BioPark attractions.

Miller Rugg said she’s thankful for the volunteers and others who worked on the campaign.

“We’re just overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we received from the community,” she said.

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