Voters trickle in to cast ballot for proposed tax increase

September 18, 2017

Santa Fe County voters will head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to raise their gross receipts tax rate by a fraction of a cent to raise just over $2 million annually for what the county says will enhance behavioral health services and more public safety positions.

Although the passage of the one-sixteenth-cent tax increase would further elevate the city and county’s gross receipts tax rates — which some feel will put more of a strain on low-income people and municipal governments — the county special election has been drastically less contentious than the city of Santa Fe’s ballot question earlier this year.

In that election, voters were asked to consider a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages to fund childhood education. They voted to reject the tax by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, with some 20,000 residents, or 38 percent of all registered voters, casting ballots. About 8,500 early and absentee ballots were cast.

In comparison, early voting data suggest turnout might be tepid for Tuesday’s county election. After the conclusion of the early voting period Saturday, 2,855 votes had been cast at the six early-voting locations. There have been a handful of absentee ballots returned as well, according to County Clerk Geraldine Salazar.

There are 94,545 registered voters in the county, so the turnout so far represents roughly 3 percent.

And several voters who showed up Friday to cast ballots said they had come to deliver a message to the county: They do not want a second tax increase in a year.

County commissioners, all Democrats, earlier this year voted to raise the county gross receipts tax rate by an eighth of a cent, the second one-eighth increase the county has approved since 2015.

“It’s just a little too much,” said Roy Snable, a retired radiologist. “I had to make my feelings known to them. That’s the beauty of our system.”

Alan Shapiro, a retired electrical engineer, meanwhile, said he didn’t feel strongly about the tax one way or the other. He rode his bike to the polling place to cast his ballot because, he said, he simply loathes voter apathy.

“I get so embarrassed when I hear, oh, 8 percent of voters showed up,” Shapiro said. When told less than that amount had turned out to vote so far, Shapiro’s face fell.

“If people are going to be uninformed, you can’t force it down their throats,” he said.

Most of the early voters cast their ballots at the Santa Fe County administrative offices downtown, at 102 Grant Ave., according to data provided by Salazar. Only 190 voted at the early-voting center nearest to the city of Española, where the tax, if passed, would put the rate in the portions of the city that lie in Santa Fe County at 9.125 percent. Another 145 residents voted at a fire station in Edgewood, the third and final municipality in the county.

The county special election costs also are projected to far exceed the city’s. Initially estimated by City Clerk Yolanda Vigil to run as high as $90,000, the city’s soda-tax special election cost came in at $59,000. Vigil said at the time she used only eight voting convenience centers in the city, rather than the normal 12, to keep costs for election workers and voting equipment down. Some voters did, however, report waiting in lines for up to a half-hour.

The county election is estimated to cost $134,000, and a final accounting of the cost will be available after the election.

The county will operate 28 voting convenience centers spread across its roughly 2,000 square miles, with several in Santa Fe and others in Cedar Grove, Cerrillos, Chimayó, Edgewood, Eldorado, Española, Glorieta, La Cienega, Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso Pueblo, Stanley and Tesuque. Any registered voter can cast a ballot at any of the voting convenience centers, regardless of the voter’s precinct.

One reason the county special election has experienced a passive buildup is the lack of outward lobbying for the tax increase by county officials and employees.

Some have said there is a significant need for enhanced behavioral health treatment and more robust public safety, particularly in more rural areas where, for example, the county fire chief says emergency calls are on the rise.

But no official has pushed for the tax increase’s passage because the county’s code of ethics mandates that no “public resources, including funds, facilities and personnel” may be used “to influence the outcome of an election.”

Even county commissioners, who voted 3-2 to put the one-sixteenth increment on the ballot, have not explicitly urged voters to pass the tax, saying instead that while enhanced services would be welcome, it is up to voters to support the tax.

“I will say this: There is no fluff and there is no gravy associated with what we’re asking the voters to pass,” Commissioner Robert Anaya said. “Our public safety in the realm of corrections, our sheriff’s department, our fire department, and in substance abuse and behavioral health — none of us, none of our families, none of our community members are exempt from the need to have contact and services in these areas.”

While much of the public-safety positions to be funded with the proposed tax would benefit residents outside Santa Fe city limits, a behavioral health center the county plans to operate on Galisteo Street is expected to provide detox and counseling services to all residents in the immediate area. Advocates like District Attorney Marco Serna say such resources are desperately needed.

The one-eighth-cent tax boost approved by commissioners earlier this year is projected to bring in $4.6 million annually when it takes effect Jan. 1, at which point the tax rate in unincorporated parts of the county will rise to 7.125 and the city of Santa Fe’s rate will rise to 8.4375.

The one-sixteenth-cent increase before voters, equivalent to 6.25 cents on every $100 spent, would raise some $2.2 million a year. The specific public safety and behavioral health allocations benefiting from that increase will be determined when next year’s budget is hashed out, County Manager Katherine Miller said.

If the one-sixteenth passes, the county rate on gross receipts taxes, which function much like sales taxes, would rise to 7.1875 percent, and the city of Santa Fe’s to 8.5 percent, tied for fourth-highest for incorporated areas in the state.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.