Raiding other city public works projects - although illegal - has been discussed
No Firm Federal Money Commitment Yet
It’s a question no one seems able to answer: Where will the city get the money to complete the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project if doesn’t get some or all of the $69 million federal transit grant it has applied for?
While the city says it has an extra $69 million laying around somewhere to complete the $126 million ART project by the end of the year, it isn’t saying where it’ll come from.
Mayoral spokesman Rhiannon Samuel did not respond to freeabq.com email queries on that question. City councilors don’t have any answers either.
During an April 3 City Council meeting, Albuquerque Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan told councilors there’s no need to worry.
“We have enough existing money to complete the project. The project will not have to stop and start again,” Riordan told councilors. “There [are] enough existing resources that we can complete the project and then be in the reimbursement business and not in the needing money business.
“The project will be completed this calendar year.”
What Riordan didn’t volunteer, and what councilors didn’t ask, was where that money would come from.
At freeabq.com’s request, two councilors – Dan Lewis and Brad Winter – asked Mayor Richard Berry’s administration where the city would get the money. Both said they were told that the money would come from a capital projects fund. The city does have a Capital Acquisitions Fund, which had a balance of $313 million as of June 30, 2016, according to the latest audit of city funds.
But most of that money is from general obligation bonds approved by voters in years past and is already dedicated. It’s illegal to divert GO bond money for one project to another, city budget experts said.
Neither Lewis nor Winter were able to offer any detail as to which capital projects would be raided if the city doesn’t get any or all of its ART grant money.
Councilor Patrick Davis had a completely different answer about where the city could find $69 million. He said the city could use federal highway fund money it gets that is administered through the Mid-Region Council of Governments.
But Dave Pennella, Metro Planning Organization administrator for MRCOG, disputed that. “The money cannot come from any other federal funding sources that we have,” Pennella said.
Councilor Diane Gibson said she didn’t know where the city would find the money. “It would really be nice to know,” she said.
Councilors Don Harris, Ken Sanchez, Isaac Benton and Trudy Jones did not return freeabq.com phone calls on the subject.
Still no FTA grant
What is clear is that the city still hasn’t gotten the $69 million Small Starts FTA grant it sought, and that there is a chance that it won’t get some or even all of it.
The $69 million for ART was included in President Obama’s FY 2017 federal budget, but Congress has yet to approve that budget. And even it does approve a FY17 budget by summer, it likely won’t fully fund ART. That’s because last year, the appropriations committees of both the U.S. House and Senate recommended slashing the ART grant by a minimum of $19 million.
The Trump administration has recommended that Congress completely cut funding program for projects like ART in the FY17 budget by a whopping $447 million , according to Transportation for America, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit that advocates for local transit projects.
And, Trump’s FY 2018 budget plan contains no funding for transit projects that weren’t already fully funded when Trump took office on Jan. 20. The ART project doesn’t have a full-funding agreement with the FTA.
Consequences of raiding capital projects
Former city councilor and blogger Pete Dinelli said it is generally illegal for the city to move capital improvement money around. And politically, even if legal, there would be consequences should officials would have to tell voters that promised street, sewer and parks projects are delayed or canceled because money is moved to ART.
State Auditor Tim Keller, a mayoral candidate, agreed it’s generally illegal for cities to move capital money from project to project. But he said cities around the state do it.
“There are all sorts of ways that cities rob Peter to pay Paul,” Keller said. “The dedicated revenue bait-and-switch game goes on all over the state.”
Keller said he suspects that Berry’s administration could find ART money in the city’s risk management fund.
But robbing Peter to pay Paul to cover the cost of an ART shortfall means there will be a $69 hole somewhere in the city’s future budgets that the next mayor will have to deal with, Keller said.
We should know soon
The question of whether the city gets none or just some ART grant money could be answered later this month.
The continuing budget resolution that Congress has been operating under expires April 28. At that point, Congress could approve a FY 17 budget, or it could pass another continuing resolution, which basically freezes current spending at last year’s levels.
Doing nothing means the federal government would shut down.
Photo by Johnny Vizcaino
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