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A county tax cut may be coming

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By The Staff

Voters considering the UNM-LA operating mil levy and LA Public Schools (LAPS) bond renewal should be aware of a potentially important county council action that may lower the county portion of our property taxes.

On Nov. 14 last year, Council voted to “reduce spending and property taxes by $1.5 million per year for each of the next three years.” The vote occurred in a Council strategic planning meeting in its chambers that Saturday morning. No reporters attended. $1.5 million in county government spending represents very roughly two mils on property tax rates or about $200 on a $300,000 home.

If the county maintains this new policy direction, the county portion of average property tax rates would be reduced by roughly that two mils starting with this coming November’s bills, four mils in 2011, and six mils in 2012.

This reduction could make the currently proposed UNM-LA increase of 2 mils and the continuation of LAPS’s current 3.246 mil levy easier for taxpayers to support.

The vote was a narrow 4-3. Councilors Phelps, Chiravelle, and Wismer joined me in the majority. Councilors Wheeler, Stover, and Bowman voted against.

This vote followed two failed attempts earlier last year to limit county spending growth and roll back its portion of our property taxes. Had that proposal passed during last April’s budget hearings, taxpayers would not have experienced the huge increase in their tax bills last November when the large (5.458 mil) new LAPS bond levy kicked in.

The county government would not have experienced any loss in total income, since its gross receipts tax (GRT) revenue, largely from LANL, increased more than that proposed property tax reduction would have been.

Will this action to halt and finally reverse the growth of county government spending actually “stick?” That is the multimillion-dollar question. The county’s record at controlling its spending has not been good.

Of course, governments typically characterize any reductions (even reduced increases) as “cuts” and threaten reductions in services. For many overspending governments, like the State of New Mexico, that have already been forced by reduced revenues to scrutinize their operations, that might be true. LA County has continued to enjoy greatly increased revenues this decade from post-fire reconstruction, the change in LANL to a taxable for-profit manager, and the large GRT rate increases it enacted in 2006. It has never been forced to truly scrub how it does business internally, modernize and streamline its processes or question marginally beneficial services.

The second and third year’s spending and tax reductions will have to be implemented by the council elected this fall. While most council candidates run on platforms that include fiscal restraint, few actually follow that philosophy when governing.

On two occasions in recent years when council actually took a stand against the excessive size and cost of two large capital project proposals, the White Rock fire station in 2006 and the Justice Center in 2007, it quickly yielded to staff pressure and reversed itself. Will history repeat?

I wish I could predict whether this direction to reduce the county portion of our property taxes will actually be implemented. It would help all voters deciding about the UNM-LA and LAPS portions. I can’t. But you should at least know about it.

Ballots will be mailed soon. Please vote.