Sept. 23, 2017
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County Tax Hearing
The county clerk swears in people to testify about the tax increase
Matt Grubs

Santa Fe County Commission raises taxes

Additional tax on goods and services to fund sheriff, fire department and behavioral health center

June 27, 2017, 9:30 pm

A crowd of more than 100 people in the Santa Fe County Commission chambers on Tuesday night had high hopes for higher taxes. They got them. And the taxes could go even higher. 

One by one, allowed two minutes to address the commission, roughly two dozen people stepped to a lectern and told their stories of mental illness. Lawyers, businesswomen, educators and others talked about family members—and in some cases, about themselves—and the challenge of living with mental illness.

“I am very lucky that in the years of my mental illness, I have never had to spend time in jail,” Anne Albrink, a local attorney, told commissioners. “People like me can be productive members of society, and taxpayers, if they have the right help at the right time.”

County commissioners unanimously approved a 1/8 percent tax increase that’s expected to generate $4.6 million a year. Voters gave the nod to the increase in a nonbinding vote last November. The measure will go into effect next January and add $1.25 worth of taxes to every $1,000 purchased.The county estimates it will gain $1.5 million for the budget year that starts next month, though, since it won’t actually start seeing revenue from the tax until early 2018.

The board also decided to ask voters about another 1/16 tax increment in a special election that could take place in September. That vote came after Commissioners Henry Roybal, Anna Hansen and Ed Moreno opposed the idea of levying the second tax without an election.

Both taxes would be targeted toward the same needs, though the county isn’t bound to use the money for behavioral health and public safety in perpetuity. For example, the county could use a larger chunk of the money to pay down existing debt.

Mental health advocates in the county are hoping to create a behavioral health crisis center with $1.6 million from the increase approved Tuesday. The center would provide timely help to mental illness survivors and ease the caseload of the county jail, which many argue has become a de facto treatment center for behavioral health care. The money will also fund a behavioral health manager’s position.

While the mental health component of the money raised by the tax has garnered attention—including SFR’s profile of former commissioner and city councilor Miguel Chavez and his son, Manuel—money from the tax would also fund more public safety positions. When it’s fully flowing into county accounts, the tax will fund 20 new positions at the fire department, nine jobs at the sheriff’s office and 14 other positions across county government. It will also fund a 1 percent raise for all county employees.

For Laura Lee Weiss, the new positions will come too late. Weiss was about 30 seconds into her comments when she broke down. The Edgewood woman’s home caught fire 10 days ago. Santa Fe County firefighters weren’t able to save it.

Weiss tearfully recalled not understanding why only five firefighters could respond, and why they had to take breaks—for safety—while her home burned. That night, Weiss said, she asked the crew what she could do to help. They told her to drive to Santa Fe to share her story.

Commissioners Robert Anaya and Anna Hamilton favored both increases.

“The additional 1/16 gets us to where we need to be,” Hamilton urged her colleagues. County staff estimates that increment, which would add $0.625 to every $1,000 of purchases, would generate another $2.3 million every year for the county. Ultimately, Hamilton and Anaya convinced Roybal that voters could decide the matter.

Santa Fe County Republican Party Chair Yvonne Chicoine pleaded with commissioners to find a different way of funding important issues.

“Few families, these are your constituents, have had eight pay increases in the last 15 years,” Chicoine told commissioners, citing the county’s funding of an equestrian center in Stanley and pay raises for employees regardless of merit as examples of budget flexibility the county hadn’t fully exercised.

“We must stop holding taxpayers hostage to pay for critical needs,” she said.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last possible meeting at which the county could have decided on the 1/16 increase without sending it to voters. State law set timelines for counties to claw back some of the tax that the state took to help pay for rising Medicaid costs.

At the commission’s last meeting on May 30, it reluctantly agreed to put off a vote on the two measures until Tuesday. While every commissioner reasserted the county’s right to impose a tax on goods and services, they also recognized the fact that most of the money that comes from such a tax comes from purchases within the city limits. With a joint study session with the City Council planned for June 15, the County Commission opted to hear what the city had to say.

Less than two months ago, city voters roundly rejected a proposed tax on sugary beverages, and at the study session, Mayor Javier Gonzales, himself a former commissioner, issued a sort of mea culpa. Gonzales said he hadn’t anticipated the kind of response voters dished out at the polls. He cautioned the commission against further tax increases, saying the city vote served as a signpost.

Buoyed by the nonbinding voted in November, though, even Moreno and Hansen felt comfortable giving the 1/8 percent increase the thumbs up. “It was a no-brainer,” Hansen told SFR. 

An earlier version of this story contained an error in calculating the tax.


 

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