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The crowd in the lobby of the Los Alamos Municipal Building was guarded, as members of the UNM-LA Advisory Board and the Los Alamos Committee For Higher Education waited anxiously to see if the residents of Los Alamos voted to approve a 2-mil increase in property taxes to prop up the university.
The polls closed at 7 p.m., and County Clerk Sharon Stover had the results by 7:30 p.m.
Though the margin was close, with 47.49 percent of ballots in favor, 52.21 percent voted against the tax hike. The unofficial tally is 2,662 for and 2,908 against.
UNM-LA Business Director Lisa Wismer, who was one of many heavily involved in the “Vote Yes” campaign, offered some words of consolation.
“I’d like to thank you for showing your support, appreciation and support you showed UNM-LA,” she told the crowd. “We all have a passion for education, and we wanted to convince the community to invest in the future, as far as it relates to UNM-LA, and it didn’t come out the way we hoped.”
UNM-LA had a lot riding on the outcome. Recent degree programs started by UNM-LA, including fire science and robotics were supported by $3 million in grants, many of which are due to run out soon and are not renewable.
If the levy passed, it would have raised property taxes by 2 percent, generating around $1.4 to $1.5 million a year for the university. To put it in perspective, a $300,000 home with a taxable value of $100,000 would have the owner paying $66.67 more in taxes a year.
After the vote, Wismer was stoic about the school’s future. “I think the campus staff will have to take a serious look at the opportunities we can sustain moving forward,” she said. “The ones that are funded by grants are greatly at risk, and we don’t have a plan, but we are going to have to look at these resources and make wise, strategic decisions about the resources we have.”
Wismer’s husband and UNM-LA Advisory Board member Mike Wismer told the crowd to “hold your heads high” and said they should be proud for running an honest campaign.
“I don’t know what else we could have done to convince the voters,” he said.
UNM-LA Advisory Board Chairman Steve Boerigter told those assembled at the municipal building that they did all they could do to get the vote out.
“We executed an excellent campaign,” he said. “We informed the voters as much as they wanted to be informed, we were honest and straight. There wasn’t anything else we could have done to make this vote come out different.”
Reached on Wednesday, Cedric Page, the school’s executive director, said they have a back up plan in place and will be moving forward as best they can.
“We have a clear mission we are working to fulfill, and we will be spending the next couple of weeks getting input from staff and faculty as well as our advisory board on how we proceed, and how fast we proceed,” he said.
Superintendent of Los Alamos Public Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt is a big supporter of UNM-LA, and the district shares a number of dual programs with the university, with many of them designed to help high school students make the transition to college.
“I’m disappointed and much surprised,” he said. “We were all registering our support, and as I was traveling about the community there seemed to be a very positive feeling about what UNM-LA was doing, and that people were beginning to understand and capture UNM-LA’s plans for a new and expanded role of the college as an education center for our community.”
There were numerous letters to the editor — pro and con — on the mil levy vote.
Resident Erika Gorman had this take on the vote.
“My husband and I work very hard for our money and are not upper-echelon labbies that bring home the big bucks … these tax hikes have a real impact on our budget. In the past five years, my taxes have increased $616. The latest levy would increase that another $168.
“We do not have unlimited funds, and even if we did, I do not trust the county to use my tax dollars wisely,” Gorman said in her letter.
Another letter writer, W.T. Sellers said, "after all the hype and hoopla of the 'Los Alamos elite,' voters decided it was just most of the same."