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Siphoning ABQ Zoo Dollars?

Would this 15-year-long tax really be used in its entirety each and every year for BioPark improvements or is it really a stealth 'Berry Bail Out?'

BY JOE MONAHAN

Zoo tigerAt $28 million and counting. That’s the stunning number the city has paid out since 2010 as a result of lawsuits stemming from APD shootings. There’s little talk about how all this cash headed to families of the victims and their attorneys is impacting the city budget and city services but it is. The city is self-insured and a portion of the budget for each city department is devoted to that insurance.

The tab skyrocketed by another $5 million as a result of the city’s settlement with the family of James Boyd, the homeless man shot and killed by Albuquerque police in March 2014 in the most notorious of the shootings.

And that leads us to that proposal to increase the city’s gross receipts tax by an eighth of a cent to finance improvements at the BioPark.

A petition drive to gather the signatures of about 14,000 registered voters to place the tax before voters at the city’s October election ballot recently concluded. Those signatures now have to be validated by the city clerk. If the tax hike makes it on the ballot and voters approve, it is estimated it will generate about $17 million annually.

The tax would last for ten years, giving the BioPark a cool $170 million to finance its master development plan. The BioPark includes the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach.
The BioPark is a highly popular attraction. A poll commissioned by backers of the tax found that more than 70 percent of the respondents had made a visit there in the past two years. The poll also found that 58 percent of respondents support the BioPark tax after being told the various ways the money would be spent. Therein lies the rub.

Would this 15-year-long tax really be used in its entirety each and every year for BioPark improvements or is it really a stealth “Berry Bail Out?”

In 1999 Mayor Baca won voter approval of a quarter cent tax for public transportation but a 2005 city audit found not all the money was being spent as originally billed. The city’s financial condition today is much more precarious and redirecting of the BioPark tax proceeds by the mayor and city council is thus more likely, say tax critics.

Ten years is a very long time to keep the politicians in line, especially as millions in lawsuit settlements continue to pile up as well as the millions needed to finance federally mandated APD reforms. And not to mention the struggle the city has been having increasing the general fund budget by even one percent or so a year the last several years.

Mayor Richard Berry has not taken a position on the BioPark tax but the facility did open its doors free to the public for a day during the petition drive, an obvious move to build support for the tax hike. And by using a tax increase to finance the BioPark Berry and the council don’t use the city’s bonding capacity to finance the improvements, the traditional way of financing zoo improvements. Bonding capacity has been strained, in part, because of faltering tax collections brought about by the long-running economic stagnation.

Maybe in a year or two the mayor and council will tell the BioPark its general budget can be trimmed because of all the tax money coming in? That would free up millions for other city needs – like paying off more lawsuits and APD reforms.

Beyond that fear, there is the concern that yet another increase in the gross receipts tax will fall on the backs of low-income citizens. They pay a much larger share of their income in such tax. Then there was that July 1 increase in the Bernalillo County gross receipts tax taking it up to 7.1875 percent and raising further questions about the area’s reliance on the regressive tax.
Some may see the questioning of how this BioPark tax plan would play out as an exercise in paranoia, but given the backdrop of what has been happening in Albuquerque lately, paranoia can be seen as a virtue.

— Joe Monahan is a veteran of New Mexico politics. His daily blog can be found at joemonahan.com.

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Lex Voytek is a nervous wreck and reading quiets the noise. Reach her at books@freeabq.com.