New County Buildings and Specialty Taxes

Shocked. Stunned. Surprised. Alarmed. Those were my reactions to the news that Bernalillo County is even considering a plan to purchase a new building for the purpose of “efficiency” and “consolidation.”

As you may have heard, the county is just coming out of what can only be characterized as a financial crisis. A crisis precipitated by the treasurer’s risky investments that resulted in a realized loss of approximately $17 million, and exacerbated by ongoing costs of overpopulation at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

A crisis that we were fortunate to get through with our AAA bond rating intact.

As a result, county departments have been asked to cut their budgets, which is one step closer to cutting services, fund balances are being scoured for any unspent funding, maintenance is being deferred, and pressure is being applied to find new sources of “revenue.”

From franchise taxes to impact fees, from inspection fees to taxes for open space, the county is looking for new and creative ways to make you pay for the financial bind it’s in. All at a time when property taxes have risen, while property values have declined, and the economy is still struggling.

At the June 10th Bernalillo County Commission meeting, I opposed placing a new voter-imposed tax to fund open space on the November ballot. If open space is a priority – and I believe it should be – then we should continue to fund it from of the general fund as we have for the previous eight years.

I was told that the county no longer has the money to continue funding $1.2 million for open space out of the general fund and that a new specialty tax would be needed. Property taxes are already a huge and increasing burden for homeowners and a new specialty tax would only free up general fund tax dollars for less-popular uses.

Now, miraculously, just days later, the county announces it is looking to spend millions of dollars acquiring a new building and millions more to move.

If the county can find millions of your dollars to spend on itself, it can certainly find $1.2 million of your money to spend on you for open space.

As a County Commission, we should not forget that we work for you, the taxpayer, and we should be good stewards of your tax dollars. The financial conversations that you are having over your kitchen table are the same type of conversations that Bernalillo County officials should be having, and we should always be mindful of the financial burden we place on your family.

For the county, gone are the days of vast reserves that “needed” to be spent down. Gone are the days of having $20 million available to spend on a building in the name of “consolidation” or “efficiency.”

And gone should be the days of building a new monument to Bernalillo County government on the backs of taxpayers

—– Editor’s Note ——
Commissioner Johnson’s Op/Ed was published by the Albuquerque Journal Monday, June 23rd under the title:“Wrong time for new taxes, buying new county building” (Subscription)

District 5 Small Business Summit

This past Saturday, I hosted the District 5 Small Business Summit. The summit was one of five events held in Bernalillo County annually – one for each commission district.

Small Business SummitThe summit was the county’s largest small business event yet with a shortage of chairs and right around 60 people attending the morning event at the McGrane Public Safety Complex in Tijeras.

[Sidebar]
KOAT’s Angela Brauer produced a story previewing the Saturday event. You can watch it here.
[End Sidebar]

As a small business owner, I understand the challenges of my small business colleagues face everyday. That’s why I have long supported Bernalillo County’s efforts to reach out to those of us who are quite often risking it all to support their families and provide jobs for the community.

In fact according to the SBA, small businesses account for roughly 67% of the net new jobs nationwide (read it here). So it makes sense that if we are trying to create new jobs in Bernalillo County, the place to start is with those who create the highest number of jobs.Packed House

I would encourage anyone who owns of small business or might be thinking of starting one, to call my office (Tito Madrid – 505.468.7212) or contact the county’s Economic Development Department (Anne Gonzales – 505.468.7185) to find out how we can help.

Fear of “COPS”

Perception is a powerful thing. As individuals we make decisions based on how we perceive the world around us.

Unfortunately, we often don’t perceive the entire picture.

The kerfuffle over COPS the TV show is a perfect example. The simple fact is that COPS has been in Bernalillo County since Mayor Chavez’ eviction of the show. Sheriff White invited the production back to Bernalillo County in 2005 (KOAT TV – read it here).

Back then public officials were having the same conversation over the same fears. Subsequently, the show came and went without even being noticed.

Do we want to glamorize the less desirable elements of our community? No. But if you’ve ever watched COPS, you generally see that the good guys usually win.

What’s truly ironic is that some of these same leaders embraced a meth-dealing high school teacher for almost four years. Sure the show was fictional, but if you’re worried about perception Breaking Bad didn’t exactly make Albuquerque look like “the happiest place on earth.”

I haven’t watched COPS in years… and I can’t even say that I have seen a whole episode.But I’ve ridden with officers and I’ve seen some of they things and people they have to deal with everyday. Most of the time they do a fantastic job even when faced with life-threatening situations.

When the COPS crew gets to Bernalillo County, I’m confident that what you’ll see is training and professionalism of our deputies as they deal with the folks that you and I don’t want to have to deal with.

Bottom line… When COPS was kicked out of Albuquerque did it make crime rates go down? Was the public any safer?

Photographers can only shoot what happens in our community. If the footage reveals an out of control criminal element, perhaps we should be working to address the problem and not shoot the messenger.

As elected officials, we should have the courage to deal with problems as they are revealed to us – no matter who or how those problems are brought to light.

I for one prefer to address them rather than wrap myself in a cloak of denial.

Jail a Costly, Unnecessary Problem

On May 18th the Journal opined that “the county needs a data-driven approach to managing the jail’s population.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fortunately, there’s no lack of data or analysis, just a lack of effective action resulting in the reduction of MDC inmate population.

First, it’s important to understand the role of a county jail – which is far different from that of a state prison. Jails are short-term incarceration facilities whose primary mission is to serve the criminal justice system. Ideally, a jail should hold only those accused of a crime and sentenced misdemeanants.

As of mid-April the population at MDC was made up of 2% probation violators with new misdemeanor charges, 9% sentenced misdemeanor offenders, 9% sentenced felony offenders, 10% technical felony probation violators, 11% probation violators with new felony charges, 19% pretrial misdemeanor offenders, and 40% were pretrial felony offenders.

Over half (51%) of the population was made up of pretrial felons, if you include probation violators with new felony charges. When sentenced felons are included, that number rises to 60%.

If we’re serious about reducing jail overcrowding, the place to start is in the jail’s felony population. While probation violators that have managed to rack up another felony charge may constitute a danger to the community and belong in jail, I would argue that MDC is not the place for convicted felons. Those inmates belong in a state prison designed for felons and not in a county jail. Simply moving convicted felons from MDC to the appropriate state facility would result in a reduction of at least 250 inmates.

That leaves the largest single block of MDC inmates – pretrial felons.

Remember, these are individuals who have been accused of a felony, not convicted of one. They have rights under the U.S. Constitution – one of which is the right to a speedy trial – and take up about 1,000 beds.

According to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) January 2013 report, 49% of felony cases in Large Urban Counties had progressed from arrest to final disposition within 90 days. In Bernalillo County and the 2nd Judicial District only 2% of felonies had reached final disposition within 90 days and only 39% had reached final disposition within a full year. Meanwhile, other Large Urban Counties had disposed of 88% of their felony cases within a year.

In short, the 2nd Judicial District moves at an almost glacial pace when compared to similar districts in other states.

Both the NCSC and the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) determined that MDC overcrowding is a direct result of slow case flow through the 2nd Judicial District.

The ILPP concludes, “Bernalillo County over-uses its jail resource by failing to manage the Criminal Justice System work and case flow.”  From the NCSC, “Model Time Standards for criminal cases suggest that felony cases should be disposed of more quickly than they now are in Bernalillo County.”

The NCSC goes on to say “…we conclude that the Court and its criminal justice partners not only should shorten times from arrest to disposition, but that there are demonstrably successful ways by which they can do so.”

Inevitably, cries of inadequate funding go up whenever there is pressure on the criminal justice system to improve efficiency. The NCSC report addresses that too – “the inadequacy of staffing levels may be magnified because the management of felony case progress in the 2nd Judicial District needs improvement. If felony case flow management were improved, personnel resource needs would be a less salient consideration.”

Recently, Judge Parker ordered the county to create a plan to meet very specific population goals by September 1st. On its own, the only way the County can achieve these goals is to expand the number of available beds by either shipping inmates out or building a new facility. Both options will cost residents of Bernalillo County millions – millions that wouldn’t have to be spent if our criminal justice system partners would move accused felons from arrest to final disposition in a timely manner.

Bernalillo County taxpayers should not have to pay millions of dollars to ship inmates or build bigger jails simply because our criminal justice system moves too slowly and is reluctant to make significant systemic changes to improve efficiency.

Call it “finger pointing” if you like, I call it using data to identify a significant, costly, and unnecessary problem.

Note: The reports cited in this piece are available on the County’s website. You can find them at: http://www.bernco.gov/commission-district-5/ under the heading “Public Safety Information.”

The column above was published June 2nd, 2013 by the Albuquerque Journal under the title “Jail a Costly, Unnecessary Problem” (Subscription).

Minimum Wage – Bad for Small Businesses, Worse for Workers

Minimum wage advocates would have you believe that business owners arbitrarily and sometimes capriciously set wages based solely on what they can get away with. That to own a business means that you are wealthy and most damning of all, that the wealth of a business was unfairly earned at the expense of those employed.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Most small businesses have less than 20 employees. They’re your mom and pops, your entrepreneurs, and your refugees from the job crisis.  They’re also people who have put their homes and savings on the line in order to pursue their dream, earn a living, and provide over 127,000 jobs to New Mexicans.

Small business owners really aren’t that different from the people they employ except they’re intimately familiar with 3:00AM insomnia while trying to figure out how to make payroll. Most have foregone their own paychecks so that an employee can have theirs, and all small business owners stand to lose far more than a job if their business fails.

And until you’ve sat across the table from an employee and had to tell them that you can no longer afford to keep them despite their ability, their value to your company, and the friendship that developed over many years of working together, you can’t understand the sense of loss and failure that a business owner experiences when they are forced to let an employee go.

Commissioners O’Malley, Stebbins, and De La Cruz would like to make the burdens small businesses carry even heavier and at the same time make it more difficult for teens and entry-level workers to find a job.

The Commissioners minimum wage proposal would raise the first rung on the job ladder higher than it is in surrounding counties and states. To make matters worse, they would tie the Bernalillo County minimum wage to a national cost of living index – a move that would guarantee one of the highest minimum wages in the country.

The results of this purely political policy are fewer entry-level job opportunities, higher teen unemployment, and fewer small businesses. And its effects will only worsen over time thanks to the CPI index provision.

The only real beneficiaries of this policy are politicians who pander to extreme interest groups and larger businesses that have the ability to survive the arbitrarily imposed costs and benefit once their smaller competitors are forced out of business.

Make no mistake, minimum wage laws harm the most vulnerable businesses and wage-earners and Bernalillo County’s minimum wage proposal is no different.

Albuquerque residents are already feeling the effects of their minimum wage ordinance. Restaurants are cutting hours, prices are going up, and workers are losing shifts.

Commissioner Stebbins was correct at our March 12th meeting when she pointed out that having a minimum wage in the city places her all-city district at a disadvantage when competing with the rest of the county. However, you don’t impose the same bad policy countywide in order to correct a bad policy in the city.

The Commission should take a step back and assess the impact of the minimum wage in Albuquerque and potential effects to businesses in Bernalillo County. To that end, I proposed conducting a business survey that would have helped the county determine the impact of the minimum wage on the 1,400 businesses in the unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County.

Of course, that common sense approach was shot down by the three Commission proponents of the minimum wage who simply do not want to know how harmful their policy is to small businesses and to workers.

The Bernalillo County minimum wage proposal is the worst kind of political policy. It appeals to human kindness but it’s a regressive policy that makes the most vulnerable pay with their hours, their jobs, and their opportunities.

On April 23rd, the Bernalillo County Commission has a choice – it can support small businesses and workers, or it can force small businesses to raise prices, reduce employee hours, and lay off workers. You can be sure that I will be standing with small businesses and their workers.

Jobs Package Trumps Bad Policy

by Bernalillo County Commissioners Lonnie Talbert & Wayne Johnson

Many of us have been arguing for years that New Mexico must become more competitive by cutting our businesses taxes if we are going to compete for the jobs of tomorrow. During the recently concluded legislative session, Governor Martinez and the Democratic-controlled legislature did something many thought impossible – they came together in a bipartisan manner to pass real tax reform that will help businesses grow and create new jobs.

In the tax reform package, the business tax rate is lowered from 7.6% to 5.9%, the tax code no longer punishes manufacturers like Intel and Johnson and Johnson for exporting products, and unfair loopholes are closed to ensure New Mexico businesses are competing on a level playing field.

Any tax package will contain elements to criticize and this package is no different. As county commissioners, we understand the importance of hold harmless funds – state funding provided to local governments to help offset losses from the elimination of certain taxes in 2004. It was just another example of short-sighted policy enacted during the Richardson administration.

This new tax reform eliminates hold harmless funding over 17 years and that has caused some complaints by local officials. In our view, creating more jobs for New Mexicans and growing our economy is more important than protecting a bad policy, even when that bad policy benefits local governments. The truth is the elimination of these funds was inevitable. Hold harmless funding has cost the state 3 times as much as originally anticipated and it was just a matter of time before the legislature pulled the plug.

Given that reality, we believe this compromise strikes a fair balance. It gives cities and counties 2 years to plan for and 15 years to gradually grow into the loss of funding. Local governments are given the option of imposing their own tax, but we are confident that we can find better alternatives, such as implementing cost-savings, or simply responsibly controlling the rate of growth of county government over the next 17 years so that we grow into the reduction of state funds. In addition, cities and counties will directly benefit from business and job growth as a result of New Mexico’s more competitive tax environment – further offsetting the loss of hold harmless funding.

In these tough economic times, creating an environment where businesses can create more high-paying jobs must be our primary focus. We applaud the Governor and legislature for passing this critical tax reform package and we are more than willing to do our part in the process by working with them to ensure the loss of hold harmless funding does not lead to tax increases, or the loss of local services. Real reform is never easy, but working together, we can accomplish this goal, as well.

Editor’s Note:
The preceding was published in the Albuquerque Journal on Monday, March 25th.

Bed Sharing, Health Care Priorities

In her March 4th Op/Ed, Commissioner Maggie Hart-Stebbins makes the classic mistake of mixing apples and oranges. Commissioner Stebbins would have you focus on UNMH as a level one trauma center, while conveniently forgetting the fact that UNMH’s proposed $146 million 96 bed solution to ER overcrowding doesn’t provide a single direct bed for level one trauma care.
The theory behind UNMH’s plan is that building a new 96 bed facility will free up beds in their UNMexisting facility by moving elective care patients to the new one. Elective care patients are precisely the patients the Lovelace bed sharing agreement proposes to serve. These patients would not be “traded like baseball cards” but would simply be scheduled for care at Lovelace rather than UNMH. If it’s true the UNMH plan to build $146 million elective care hospital would reduce wait times in UNMH’s level one ER, so too would an elective care bed sharing agreement with another institution.
At the February 26th County Commission meeting I lead a discussion regarding the future role of Bernalillo County in health care. At the meeting were representatives from Presbyterian, Lovelace, UNMH, and Casa de Salud. There were a couple of issues upon which all of the parties seemed to agree. First, no one knows exactly how the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will affect health care delivery and second, ACA (Obamacare) is a delivery system based on preventive care through clinics not acute care hospitals.
UNMH is focusing all of their efforts on building a new hospital while dragging their feet on building a new and needed North Valley clinic. Given the changes in health care delivery, the existing need for clinics, and the uncertainty regarding the role of hospitals in the era of ACA, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on clinics and enter in to common sense bed sharing agreements with other providers? Those agreements would provide immediate relief, allow time to evaluate the effects of ACA, and save $146 million taxpayer dollars.
In addition to bed availability, there’s also the broader issue of how ninety million of Bernalillo County taxpayer dollars are being used, how they are being accounted for, and the ability for the elected officials who are responsible for those dollars to make sure that they are used efficiently and effectively.
Currently, there’s no mechanism in place for the County Commission to set objectives for the use of county tax dollars. Yes, UNMH provides a quarterly report to the Commission, but has failed to present the UNMH Budget to the Commission prior to each budget year as contractually required. Further, even if UNMH were in full compliance with their reporting obligations, the Commission is specifically excluded from directing how the $90 million under its authority is being used and what the priorities for those funds are.
UNMH plays a vital role in Central New Mexico’s health care delivery but they are not the only provider and they’re not perfect. As Commissioners we are tasked with looking at more than what’s good for UNMH, but also what’s good for the entire health care system in Bernalillo County – which also includes two major hospitals, large medical groups, and community clinics. The fact that the top priority of UNMH is to begin the first phase of a $1.5 billion mega-hospital at a time when the country is shifting from a hospital model to a clinic based health care delivery system, calls into question their overall priorities. The fact that UNMH is insistent on excluding elected Commissioners from the decision making process calls into question their fitness to set those priorities.
These issues serve to underscore the need to create a committee consisting of all of the major providers, community clinics, and taxpayers to provide the Commission with the guidance and expertise necessary to navigate these changing times. As a member of the County Commission I am committed to finding the best answers to these questions and to providing the best possible care to Bernalillo County residents from both public and private institutions.

This post was published by the Albuquerque Journal under the title “UNMH Priorities Are All Mixed Up.” (Read it here)