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Editorial: Sky Isn’t Falling, But City Infrastructure Is

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s $478 million budget proposal is as noteworthy for what it doesn’t have as for what is does.

It has no tax increases, no layoffs, no pay cuts and no reductions in services. For the first time in four years, it does not cut any vacant positions.

It does have pay raises for employees who make less than $50K a year, continues funding for the current number of police officers and firefighters, adds 41 jobs in departments including Fire, Animal Welfare and Transit, includes $2.2 million for new police vehicles and increases city reserves.

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And yet, there is little doubt there will be detractors. Already:

♦ City Councilor Ken Sanchez, chairman of the council’s finance committee, has said “basic services in the city are in dire need.”

♦ Diego Arencón, president of the firefighters’ union, has argued that “we do not have the operational resources to maintain new capital projects. Our fiscal priorities should focus on reinvesting and sustaining essential public safety services, not boutique projects.”

♦ City Councilor Rey Garduño has maintained that the city should “stop raiding the operating budget.”

To reiterate, no cuts in jobs or services.

And for those like Garduño who would hold out for larger employee raises, here’s some math:

The average APD officer makes $91,493 with benefits; the average firefighter, $83,830; the average management employee, $61,373, the average blue-collar employee, $49,550; and the average clerical employee, $45,131. Compensation since fiscal year 2010 has increased in each class by anywhere from $2,161 to $8,489 as the city’s taxpayers have absorbed the increased costs of benefits.

So it looks like basic and essential public safety services are covered.

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Now about that alleged raiding.

The fact is starting in 2004 then-Mayor Martin Chávez and the City Council began raiding the capital budget’s recurring funds, taking tens of millions of dollars in property-tax revenue from infrastructure every year to avoid having to make hard operating decisions and incur union wrath.

From 2004 to today, that adds up to $276 million that could have been invested in the things that make Albuquerque livable and attractive to residents and visitors alike. “We put ourselves on a 500-calorie-a-day diet” when it comes to capital investment, Berry says. “And we’re going to starve our city’s built environment.”

“We need to shift some of those dollars back.”

To date, per Berry’s advice, the city has returned $3 million in recurring annual funds. In November city voters will decide if that money should be used to finance $50 million in bonds to help rebuild the Paseo del Norte/Interstate 25 interchange.

Berry’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal takes another $3 million — this time in one-time money — to put back into infrastructure, whether it’s to help make up the $10 million in potential federal grant money Berry says the city has lost out on for the much-needed Paseo rebuild, or complete a bicycle loop around the city, or add recreational areas in the bosque, or something else.

Unlike recurring bigger employee raises, those types of projects are appropriate investments for one-time money.

Unlike one-time employee bonuses, those types of projects will deliver amenities to residents and visitors for years to come.

And unlike the same old rhetoric justifying growing government, this budget proposal really invests in the city — its employees and its built environment.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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