June 22, 2021

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ABQ council wrangles over how to spend $140M in bond money

4 min read

Mar. 1—The proposals include a pool, a police substation, pickleball courts and road paving.

With $140 million worth of bond questions going out to Albuquerque voters this fall, city leaders are debating exactly where that money — if approved — should go.

Mayor Tim Keller in January forwarded his plan to the Albuquerque City Council for its review and amendments.

The council’s budget committee has since narrowly approved an updated version that would put significantly less money toward the Albuquerque Police Department and more toward community facilities.

It would not, however, adjust Keller’s proposed affordable housing allocation, which some advocates and councilors have argued is insufficient.

Council budget chairwoman Klarissa Peña introduced a rewrite of Keller’s plan last week. It passed the council budget committee on a 5-4 vote Thursday and is scheduled for a final council vote March 15.

Peña’s version decreased APD’s allocation to $6 million from Keller’s proposed $11 million, much of it taken from the Southeast Area Command project. It also reduced the citywide pot for road and intersection upgrades while introducing money for specific street projects, such as $1 million for Coors and Unser median landscaping.

It puts 23% more money than Keller toward parks and recreation. Peña added $3 million for a North Domingo Baca swimming pool, $1 million for Vista del Norte Park and $450,000 for West Side pickleball courts.

Peña’s proposal also increased Family and Community Services Department projects, with the extra dollars going primarily to a “community enhancement facility” in Peña’s southwest Albuquerque district. Keller’s plan allocated $2 million for it; Peña boosted that to $4.5 million, making it the fifth-largest line item in the package.

Her version maintained funding for some of Keller’s big-ticket items, including $7 million for a fire station near Central and Juan Tabo; $7 million for some kind of public safety development at San Mateo and Kathryn SE, and $6 million for the Cibola Loop Multigenerational Center.

Multiple members said during last week’s council committee meeting that they did not want to advance Peña’s plan.

“I have questions about all the money we’re taking out of major streets and intersections, major paving rehab, intersection signalization — these are citywide funds that have historically been there — and it appears that those are being appropriated through this process … to specific projects and specific districts,” Councilor Isaac Benton said.

But his motion to delay a vote failed on a 4-5 vote.

Supporters argued that advancing the plan now could inspire state lawmakers — who are determining how to spend their own infrastructure dollars — to come forward with matching money for projects.

The committee ultimately approved Peña’s bill 5-4. Brook Bassan, Cynthia Borrego, Don Harris and Lan Sena joined Peña to support it. Councilors Benton, Pat Davis, Diane Gibson and Trudy Jones opposed it. Each expressed concern about the money for affordable housing, deeming it too low.

The $3.3 million affordable housing allocation would be the city’s lowest since 2013. Advocates have pleaded with leaders to raise it to $10 million, which was the standard until a decade ago. Many point to the shortage: According to a 2020 analysis, Albuquerque is 15,500 affordable housing units short of the need.

At the city’s current pace, it would take decades to make a dent in the gap; only 68 city-funded affordable units are slated to come online this fiscal year.

Jones warned that demand is only climbing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related recession.

“If we don’t provide this kind of good housing, we’re derelict; we’re wrong,” she said.

Peña said her proposal addresses affordable housing concerns. It calls on the city to prioritize using up to $6.5 million from other sources, including the general fund or a potential new round of federal COVID-19 relief money.

“This would actually make sure those dollars are available much sooner” than through the bond package, she said.

But Davis argued that the city government is not guaranteed any more federal relief money.

He also noted the city’s forthcoming Gateway Center homeless shelter and services hub, saying the city needs to prioritize affordable housing so there are long-term options for people when they leave the shelter.

The council has the power to amend the plan before its final vote next month, which both Sena and Bassan reiterated before voting to advance Peña’s proposal.

“We can do amendments; I feel like we’re not backing ourselves into any permanent corner,” Bassan said.

But Davis said the council should not treat affordable housing as a last-minute matter.

“Even though we say we might come back and amend it later, we should … send the right message that is the first thing we’re funding, not the last,” he said.

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