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Commissioners vote to consider tax increase

Bernalillo County officials began making their case Tuesday for a proposed $30 million increase in gross receipts taxes, and commissioners agreed to consider the proposal next month.

Commissioners voted 3-2 along party lines to publish the “notice of intent” for the tax increase, which clears the way for the board to approve or reject the measure on March 28.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca told commissioners that approval of the tax increase would help prevent another round of painful budget cuts this year, which could include layoffs and cutbacks in public safety.

“The decisions we have made have been very, very difficult,” Morgas Baca told the commission. “We have done our best to be fiscally responsible.”

Budget cutting last year trimmed $40 million in spending, including a hiring freeze that saved $6.7 million, and employee furloughs that saved an additional $1 million, she said.

Commissioners Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert, the panel’s two Republican members, voted against the measure to publish the notice of intent.

Commissioners Debbie O’Malley, Steven Michael Quezada and Maggie Hart Stebbins, all Democrats, voted in favor.

If enacted, the proposal would boost the county’s tax rate on gross receipts – a tax similar to a sales tax – by three-sixteenths of 1 percent on most goods and services purchased in the county, effective July 1.

The new tax would add 18.75 cents to a $100 purchase.

Revenue would be used for general county operations. The county has an operating budget this year of $257 million.

The proposed tax increase would not require voter approval. Commissioners have authority under state law to approve such a tax without a public vote.

The earliest commissioners could approve the proposed tax increase would be at their March 28 meeting.

The proposal comes less than two years after the county raised the gross receipts tax by an identical amount.

Johnson said he couldn’t consider a tax increase unless the county does more to control spending.

He took county administrators to task over a reported 115 employees at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center who are now on family medical leave, which he said drives up overtime costs at the facility. MDC has approximately 600 employees in all.

“I see MDC as a potential target for additional work and additional reductions,” he said.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to provide job-protected, unpaid leave for employees with qualified medical and family reasons.

Johnson said that even though employees on FMLA leave are not paid, the absences drive up overtime costs and make it difficult to staff vital positions.

Morgas Baca said she planned to undertake a “full-blown audit” of MDC’s family leave practices.

“We’re not talking about it – we’re acting on it,” she said.

Hart Stebbins told Morgas Baca she wants county administrators to prepare a list of possible budget cuts for commissioners to consider before the March 28 meeting.

“We need to know where these cuts would be,” Hart Stebbins said. She also said the county is clearly facing difficult budget decisions.

“There are costs beyond our control,” she said. “Revenues are flat.”

Budget documents show Bernalillo County has faced rising costs that have cut into its general fund balance in recent years.

Those costs include a 78 percent increase in employee health insurance costs from 2009 to 2017, to an estimated $28 million this year.

Law enforcement workers’ compensation insurance costs increased 71 percent in the same period, to $6.4 million this year.

The county’s general fund balance peaked at $207 million in 2012, and has dwindled to $131 million in 2016.

Quezada said before the meeting that he is ambivalent about raising taxes, but acknowledged that the county needs money to provide basic services such as public safety.

The long-term solution must be to increase revenue by expanding the economy, he said.