Sunday, September 20, 2009
Mayoral Hopefuls Offer Vastly Different Views
By Dan McKay
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
Most voters like to think they're making an informed decision.
They follow news coverage of the campaigns, watch the advertisements — maybe even attend a mayoral forum or two. In that process, they are confronted with markedly different views on the state of the city.
• Incumbent Mayor Martin Chávez proclaims the city's operating budget has held steady the last few years, a sign of fiscal restraint.
• Challenger Richard Berry contends that city spending shot up nearly 50 percent, a sign of too much government growth.
• And Richard Romero accuses City Hall of raiding the capital budget to support operational spending, leaving less for construction projects.
Got all that?
Well, here's the kicker: City budget documents offer at least some evidence to support each claim. But there's plenty of rhetoric mixed in with reality.
And spending isn't all the candidates argue about. They offer competing views on how the city is doing when it comes to crime, roads, political appointees and other topics.
Here's a look at what the candidates (and the facts) have to say:
Albuquerque's general-fund spending stood at roughly $325 million in the 2002 fiscal year, when Chávez returned to office. (He has won mayoral elections in 1993, 2001 and 2005.)
This year's general-fund budget totals about $475 million. That's a 46 percent increase from 2002.
Not all of the spending, of course, is the mayor's doing. Voters approved a new tax for public safety in 2003, which contributed to the rise.
Increased economic activity in Albuquerque is another factor. The more people spend and do business, the more money City Hall ends up with in the form of gross-receipts taxes.
The city budget grew when the economy was at its best in the middle of the decade — topping out at around $482 million — then fell off in more recent years.
So it's true that spending climbed in the Chávez years. But it's also true that spending has flattened or even declined in more recent years.
Berry, a state representative, has made spending growth a major theme of his campaign.
"Any way you slice it, Chávez has grown government by 50 percent," he said.
Romero, a former president pro tem of the state Senate, also highlights city spending.
"This government has grown quite a bit under him," he said of the mayor.
Chávez said his record reflects good financial management. The city's bond rating has climbed under his watch to a "AAA" grade by Standard & Poor's, the highest available from that agency.
He also points out that this year's $475 million budget is roughly equal to what the city spent in 2007, despite population growth.
"Fiscally, I've been very conservative," the mayor said.
The mayor says City Hall has fewer employees now than it did eight years ago. The other candidates say he's added to the work force.
Each statement is true, in a manner of speaking.
In fiscal 2002, the city budgeted for 6,775 employees. It now budgets for 6,072, a decrease of about 10 percent.
But there's some context to consider. The city no longer runs the local jail system or the water utility.
Before fiscal 2005, the Legislature removed the water utility from city government and made it a semi-independent agency, causing the city to lose 515 utility workers.
Before fiscal 2007, the city transferred control of the Metropolitan Detention Center and its 503 employees to Bernalillo County. State law makes counties responsible for jails.
Add those 1,000 jail and water employees back into the mix, and the city's workforce has grown by around 300 employees, or about 5 percent.
In other words, the city shed about 1,000 water and jail jobs, but its workforce declined by only about 700 people.
Chávez attributes the extra workers to expanded public-safety functions. The city's police force has grown by at least 200 officers over the last eight years, for example, according to the city.
The candidates also spar over political appointees and the extent to which they've been added to the city payroll.
The number of "at will" employees in city government — those who can be dismissed "at will" without the normal protections afforded city workers — has grown from 75 in 2002 to 208 in the current fiscal year, according to the mayor's office. Most of the increase appears to be in jobs that aren't obviously political, such as city attorneys, 311 Call Center operators, veterinarians, animal-care officials, City Council staff who don't report to the mayor and internal auditors.
Still, Romero supporters say city records show a growing number of employees are beholden to the mayor.
Romero has made ending cronyism a signature issue and says there's no reason for rank-and-file employees to work under "at will" status. He said everyone outside of the mayor's top team should have some civil-service protection "or they're beholden to the mayor, and you eliminate the whistle blower."
Berry says City Hall shouldn't be run like a "political machine."
Supporters of the mayor argue that much of the increase is due to services not offered eight years ago — such as the 311 center — or to career professionals who have been promoted into high-level executive jobs. They point, for example, to Ed Adams, who became the city's chief administrative officer after working on Montaño Bridge, Isotopes Park and other construction projects.
"I've surrounded myself with really good people," Chávez said.
City regulations give the city's CAO authority to determine who serves at will. Some functions, such as the 311 Call Center, are essentially modeled after private operations, so supervisors need the flexibility to be able to replace workers who don't meet certain performance standards, city and campaign officials said.
Berry and Romero have hammered the mayor for tapping property-tax revenue — traditionally reserved for the capital program — to support the budget for basic operations. They say the shift leaves tens of millions of dollars less each year for basic construction, such as roads and quality-of-life measures.
It's true the city has moved over the money. A sizeable chunk of Albuquerque's property-taxing authority has been switched from the capital program to the general-fund budget since 2003. The change provides about $48 million in annual revenue now, around 10 percent of the operating budget.
Chávez and his team say massive layoffs and cuts in services would be required if the city lopped off that much of its budget, compounding the difficult economy.
Chávez also said property-tax revenue is a stable source of income — helping buffer the city against fluctuations in economic activity, which funds the city through gross-receipts taxes. Furthermore, his supporters say, it doesn't make sense to construct, say, a community center if there wasn't money available to operate it.
In forums, Chávez has said that, when his opponents argue against the tax shift, they're really arguing for layoffs. They flatly disagree.
Regardless, it's a policy question.
Berry said the property-tax money should have been kept for soccer fields, senior centers or other projects.
The Romero campaign and Berry each estimated that, because of the tax shift, the city has forgone more than $110 million over the last several years that could have been used for capital projects.
"That is poor fiscal management in my opinion," Berry said. "He is forced into that because he grew government so fast."
He said using the property-tax revenue for its traditional purpose, capital projects, would have created jobs that would in turn boost city revenue to help pay for upkeep of the improvements.
Because of the tax change, Berry argues, "we lost quality of life projects and the jobs to build these projects — jobs that would have generated the tax revenues needed to pay for the management and maintenance of the citywide improvements."
Romero, who is advised by former City Treasurer Lou Hoffman, has been equally vocal on the issue.
"I think it was a political move, obviously, by the mayor," Romero said. "That, to me, is a dangerous precedent because that money won't be there for our capital dollars. ... It's going to be difficult to wean government off."
Romero said he would trim high-level appointees and deputy directors, reduce duplication in the planning functions now handled separately by the administration and City Council, perhaps reduce employees in the 311 Call Center and look for other opportunities to save.
Every candidate mentions crime as a top issue.
Romero calls crime "out of control." Berry says people need to feel safer in their homes. Chávez says he is tough on crime and has the police-union endorsement to prove it.
According to FBI statistics, burglaries, auto thefts, assaults, robberies and larcenies have decreased on a per-capita basis since Chávez took office, compared to the previous administration. Murders and rapes, however, have increased.
Chávez attributes the increase in rapes to better reporting.
Roads and transportation
Chávez looks to the West Side and sees a place that's far better off than it used to be — with the Paseo del Norte extension built after years of debate and Montaño Bridge re-striped from two to four lanes of traffic.
The Big I, where Interstates 25 and 40 meet, has been landscaped on his watch. The "Rapid Ride" express bus service was launched and expanded, too.
Chávez said potholes get fixed within 24 hours of being reported. "Our roads are in better condition than they ever have been," he said.
His opponents offer different opinions.
Berry said a recent national survey ranked Albuquerque 18th worst for the condition of its roads. The report, issued earlier this year by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials, said 36 percent of the Albuquerque area's roads are in poor condition, 18th worst among urban areas with a population exceeding 500,000. The analysis looked at cities and their surrounding suburbs, based on 2007 data.
"I think we've got a ways to go," Berry said.
Romero said voters need only look at the bottlenecks of traffic on the West Side to see that more should be done, including the extension of Unser Boulevard. Across the river, the Paseo del Norte-Jefferson-Interstate 25 interchange needs to be redone, he said.
"If we're using our capital dollars for operational purposes," Romero said, "we're not going to have money for the entire city."
The Paseo del Norte and I-25 interchange is a state-led project because it involves a federal interstate and a state road. The city, however, has set aside some money to help pay for the project.
In the end, voters will decide who makes the most compelling case on crime, roads, spending and other issues. Election Day is Oct. 6.
Chávez and Romero are Democrats, Berry a Republican. The election is nonpartisan, meaning party affiliation won't appear on the ballot.
If no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election in November between the top vote-getters.
The candidates disagree about a lot. But each is optimistic about the city's future.
"This is a great city, made up of great people," Berry said. "The citizens deserve a government that is a good steward of taxpayer dollars."
Romero said the city's large government employers, such as Sandia National Laboratories, will help weather the economic storm.
"I think people are hopeful and cautiously optimistic that our economy will turn around," he said.
Chávez said the city is handling the recession better than most areas.
"Albuquerque is doing remarkably well, particularly if we contrast it with just 10 years ago," he said.
Journal Staff Writer T.J. Wilham contributed to this report.