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Action group urges City Council to put equity first

There was an elephant – at least a person dressed in an elephant suit – sitting in the front row at Wednesday’s Santa Fe City Council meeting.

He was there to remind the council of the elephant in the room – which a group of speakers describe as inequity in Santa Fe.

“We want to make sure that, as the budget conversations proceed, if and when cuts to services happen that you take into consideration equity, that you take into consideration the needs of the people who actually need these services the most,” Tomas Rivera, director of Chainbreaker Collective, a member-based nonprofit group that advocates for economic justice and environmental issues, told the City Council just as it was about to deliberate the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

He and others from the group thanked the council for looking for new sources of revenue, rather than just looking to cut services, to help close what city officials describe as a $12 million to $15 million budget gap in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Nearly a dozen people spoke during the public forum of the meeting as Chainbreaker Collective kicked off “Operation Elephant,” a campaign aimed at getting the council to keep equity at the forefront as they go through the process of formulating a budget.

Maintaining a public transportation system has been an issue that Chainbreaker Collective, which began as a bicycle cooperative, has tackled before and it remained one of the main issues the group’s members addressed. But they also spoke about hunger, poverty, parks and affordable housing.

Several speakers described a division between the south side of town, where most of the city’s minority population live and where poverty is highest, and the east side that caters to tourists, one of the city’s economic drivers.

“Let’s think about Santa Feans; let’s not always think about tourists,” said Nohemy Bojorquez-Flores. “Because we’re here, we’re not leaving and we need everyone’s support.”

Hawkins-Flores noted that residents contribute to the economy year-round.

Sunshine Muse, an African-American woman who said she came from the East Coast, pointed to a map that showed the percentage of the Latino population in different parts of town. The map showed that the concentration of Latinos is on the south side – as high as 89 percent in some pockets – and that Latinos make up less than 25 percent of the population just about anywhere east of St. Francis Drive.

“It demonstrates what came with transplants and gentrification,” she said, adding that she loves Santa Fe. “But I’m heartbroken to know that part of my being here perhaps is creating this type of segregation. I don’t want to see Santa Fe remain or become more segregated.”

Jennifer Elliot said most of the people on the poorest side of town are Santa Fe natives. Every person has a “productive value,” she said, and “ignoring the value of the needy and left out undercuts the productive capacity and ability to have a quality of life for everybody in the community.”

Miguel Acosta said it shouldn’t be just District 3 city councilors Carmichael Dominguez and Chris Rivera who stand up for people on the south side.

“If we are one Santa Fe, then everyone should be concerned about this,” he told the council.

Acosta mentioned an Early Neighborhood Notification meeting he recently attended about a proposed housing development on the south side, where most of the city’s growth is happening. He told the council that adding more people to a part of town lacking resources actually creates more inequity. Roads get busier and schools become overcrowded, he said.

“We shouldn’t be approving developments until equity is achieved,” he said.

Chainbreaker’s Rivera handed out the executive summary of a health impact assessment that shows the demographic disbursement and distribution of resources – including housing, green space, sidewalks, bike lanes and bus access – throughout the city.

“We encourage you to look at that report and take equity into consideration,” he said. “It’s sometimes the small and the large decisions about where resources are allocated, about what resources get cut, that can lead to the divisions that we see developing or that already exist – or that can lead to a more equitable city.”

Effort will continue

Rivera told the Journal before the meeting that Operation Elephant would continue at least through the budget development process, expected to last through the end of May.

Because some of the speakers were under the impression that bus service might be eliminated altogether, Mayor Javier Gonzales clarified that, while there could be cuts to the transportation budget, bus service would not go away.

“But I do think you guys need to stay actively involved as the Finance Committee and the (City) Council considers how they are going to find some of the cuts and where they are going to come from,” he said. “And your advocacy is going to be critical from that standpoint to make sure that service levels are delivered appropriately where they need to be.”

After Rivera spoke, the elephant revealed himself to be Dominic Toledo. Shedding his pachyderm suit for a Chainbreaker Collective T-shirt that read “Power to the Plebe (common people)!” on the back, Toledo talked about how he and others rely on the bus to get around town.

When the speakers were through, Mayor Gonzales complimented them on the “powerful message” they sent. He assured them they’re being heard and that the City Council has put equity “at the top of the list” as it considers the budget for next year. “And making sure there was a budget that reflected all the needs of our community, and that we were truly a community that was inclusive so that, no matter where you lived, you felt like your government was prepared to serve you, as well as anyone else in the rest of the city. So that is our goal and our task,” he said.

The council then proceeded to engage in a budget discussion that lasted close to two hours. The end result was yet another new plan of attack for closing the budget gap that factors in savings this year.

Finance Director Oscar Rodriguez said that an increase in revenues and a decrease in spending has resulted in a $7 million savings so far this fiscal year. However, he cautioned that, while some of the savings – $2 million at most – could be utilized to help close the gap, it would be just a one-time savings and wouldn’t have a lasting effect in the long term.

The new plan wouldn’t require an increase in gross receipts taxes, as had been previously discussed. Nor will a property tax increase be considered. The council failed to approve a motion for a property tax increase due to a 4-4 tie. Councilor Ron Trujillo was absent.

New revenues are to include $2.5 million from increased fees and debt collection, and a $1.5 million franchise fee that will be charged to the city-owned and -operated water utility.

The plan calls for $4 million in operational cuts.

The council also took action to reallocate a one-quarter of 1 percent portion of the municipal gross receipts tax now designated to support water division infrastructure to the general fund.

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