Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fear of "COPS"

Perception is a powerful thing. As individuals we make decisions based on how we perceive the world around us.

Unfortunately, we often don't perceive the entire picture.

The kerfuffle over COPS the TV show is a perfect example. The simple fact is that COPS has been in Bernalillo County since Mayor Chavez' eviction of the show. Sheriff White invited the production back to Bernalillo County in 2005 (KOAT TV - read it here).

Back then public officials were having the same conversation over the same fears. Subsequently, the show came and went without even being noticed.

Do we want to glamorize the less desirable elements of our community? No. But if you've every watched COPS, you generally see that the good guys usually win.

What's truly ironic is that some of these same leaders embraced a meth-dealing high school teacher for almost four years. Sure the show was fictional, but if you're worried about perception Breaking Bad didn't exactly make Albuquerque look like "the happiest place on earth."

I haven't watched COPS in years... and I can't even say that I have seen a whole episode.But I've ridden with officers and I've seen some of they things and people they have to deal with everyday. Most of the time they do a fantastic job even when faced with life-threatening situations.

When the COPS crew gets to Bernalillo County, I'm confident that what you'll see is training and professionalism of our deputies as they deal with the folks that you and I don't want to have to deal with.

Bottom line... When COPS was kicked out of Albuquerque did it make crime rates go down? Was the public any safer?

Photographers can only shoot what happens in our community. If the footage reveals an out of control criminal element, perhaps we should be working to address the problem and not shoot the messenger.

As elected officials, we should have the courage to deal with problems as they are revealed to us - no matter who or how those problems are brought to light. 

I for one prefer to address them rather than wrap myself in a cloak of denial.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Truth



Truth is undeniably the first casualty of any political engagement. It’s not that objective truth doesn’t exist - it’s just that the truth becomes inconvenient for those who are promoting poor policy.
Proponents of the misleadingly named “Taxpayer Protection Act” argue that it’s “unfair” that city residents have to pay a 3% franchise fee and that somehow unincorporated county residents are “subsidized” by city residents because city residents have to pay a 3% tax to the city that county residents are not forced to pay to the county.

Of course both arguments are utter nonsense. 

While it may be politically expedient or even popular for a county commissioner who represents almost exclusively city residents to impose a new tax on county residents, it doesn’t mean that the city does anything other than collect its franchise fee and spend it on city operations. There is no transfer of money or benefit to the county paid for by the city’s franchise fee, so there is no subsidy.
As for fairness… not having the burden of higher property, gross receipts, and franchise taxes in the county may be attractive but it’s no more unfair than paying lower taxes in New Mexico than they do in California or New York.

Remember, in many cases the county right-of-way isn’t owned by the county at all. The property is owned by individual property owners who already pay taxes on it. The owners must grant a utility easement which allows the use of their property for the purpose of providing needed gas, water, sewer, and electric for themselves and the community around them. 

How “fair” is it to charge a property owner for use of land that they already own and pay taxes on? The Taxpayer “Protection” Act would do just that.

Wouldn’t “fairness” dictate that if individuals are forced to provide land for the public good, the county – who purchased the rights-of-way it does own with public money – should provide land without charging the public for the use of lands they paid for in the first place?

The other fallacy being floated is that the county will be charging eeevil “for profit” corporations and that county residents won’t have to pay.

The demonstrable truth is that taxes and franchise fees are ALWAYS passed on to the consumer… you. Just take a gander at any city resident’s electric, water, or gas bill where you’ll find a whole host of taxes and fees that are collected by utility providers and passed on directly to the governments that imposed them.

Words can be used to enlighten and empower or they can be used to confuse and conceal. Focus group tested phrases like “subsidy” and “fair share” may sound good and certainly evoke specific emotional responses, but more often than not they’re used to hide what’s really going on.

We’re used to this kind of misdirection and obfuscation from our political leaders in Washington D.C., where the only truth is getting re-elected and you need to pass a bill before you find out what’s in it. 

Commissioner Stebbins in her January 6th letter to the Albuquerque Journal (read it here) picked up the mantle of D.C. rhetoric claiming the absence of a tax is a “subsidy” which is “unfair.” To believe her argument you have to believe that absence is subsidy, two wrongs make a right, and “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”  

The simple undeniable truth is that if the “Taxpayer Protection Act” passes on Tuesday January 28th, the county will receive millions of dollars of new “revenue” and county residents will pay more for their basic needs utilities. Period.

We can and should have an honest argument about whether or not the county needs to impose additional taxes. But to justify a poor policy through the use of catch phrases and buzz words and more importantly, deny the truth of increased cost to county residents is a disservice to the citizens of Bernalillo County and a prime example of what’s wrong with political discourse in this country.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mocking The "Taxpayer Protection Act"

Last week I had a little fun with my colleagues on the County Commission. You see Commissioners Stebbins, O'Malley, and De La Cruz are hell bent on raising the cost of utilities for every county resident and have decided to name their tax grab the "Taxpayer Protection Act."
[Side Bar]
No kidding! An ordinance that would take more money out of your pockets is somehow supposed to "protect" you. At least when the mob extorts protection money from you it at least protects you from them. 

Somewhere George Orwell and Ayn Rand are laughing their posteriors off watching their predictions come true.
[End Sidebar] 
Commissioner Stebbins noted that I had named a resolution the "Ratepayer Protection Act" last year - which is true. The difference is that the "Ratepayer Protection Act" actually protected ratepayers by prohibiting the county from reaching into their pockets - something the "Taxpayer Protection Act" most certainly does not.

Having a background in journalism, I decided to come up with a name that would be more accurate. And since the "Taxpayer Protection Act" does nothing of the sort, it seemed appropriate to come up with at least ten possible names and here they are:



Top Ten More Accurate Names for the “Taxpayer ‘Protection’ Act.”
10. The… Protection Money Act
9. The… We Need More Money Act
8. The… Bernalillo County Utility Tax Collection Act
7. The…  Illegal Revenue Enhancement Act
6. The… It’s not legal but we hope the Legislature will make it legal someday so we always put it on our legislative agenda Act.
5. The… Commission Can’t Live Within Its $250 MILLION a Year Means Act
4. The… It’s Not Our Land But We’ll Tax You Again for it Anyway Act
3. The… Ratepayer Screw Job
2. The… Soak the Poor Act
1. The… We Know You Can’t Live Without Water, Power, and Electric So We Know You’ll Pay Act
You can read more about the evening's discussion in the Albuquerque Journal (read it here - subscription).

Monday, July 29, 2013

Jail a Costly, Unnecessary Problem

On May 18th the Journal opined that “the county needs a data-driven approach to managing the jail’s population.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fortunately, there’s no lack of data or analysis, just a lack of effective action resulting in the reduction of MDC inmate population.

First, it’s important to understand the role of a county jail – which is far different from that of a state prison. Jails are short-term incarceration facilities whose primary mission is to serve the criminal justice system. Ideally, a jail should hold only those accused of a crime and sentenced misdemeanants.

As of mid-April the population at MDC was made up of 2% probation violators with new misdemeanor charges, 9% sentenced misdemeanor offenders, 9% sentenced felony offenders, 10% technical felony probation violators, 11% probation violators with new felony charges, 19% pretrial misdemeanor offenders, and 40% were pretrial felony offenders.

Over half (51%) of the population was made up of pretrial felons, if you include probation violators with new felony charges. When sentenced felons are included, that number rises to 60%.

If we’re serious about reducing jail overcrowding, the place to start is in the jail’s felony population. While probation violators that have managed to rack up another felony charge may constitute a danger to the community and belong in jail, I would argue that MDC is not the place for convicted felons. Those inmates belong in a state prison designed for felons and not in a county jail. Simply moving convicted felons from MDC to the appropriate state facility would result in a reduction of at least 250 inmates.

That leaves the largest single block of MDC inmates – pretrial felons.

Remember, these are individuals who have been accused of a felony, not convicted of one. They have rights under the U.S. Constitution – one of which is the right to a speedy trial – and take up about 1,000 beds.

According to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) January 2013 report, 49% of felony cases in Large Urban Counties had progressed from arrest to final disposition within 90 days. In Bernalillo County and the 2nd Judicial District only 2% of felonies had reached final disposition within 90 days and only 39% had reached final disposition within a full year. Meanwhile, other Large Urban Counties had disposed of 88% of their felony cases within a year.

In short, the 2nd Judicial District moves at an almost glacial pace when compared to similar districts in other states.

Both the NCSC and the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) determined that MDC overcrowding is a direct result of slow case flow through the 2nd Judicial District.

The ILPP concludes, “Bernalillo County over-uses its jail resource by failing to manage the Criminal Justice System work and case flow.”  From the NCSC, “Model Time Standards for criminal cases suggest that felony cases should be disposed of more quickly than they now are in Bernalillo County.”

The NCSC goes on to say “…we conclude that the Court and its criminal justice partners not only should shorten times from arrest to disposition, but that there are demonstrably successful ways by which they can do so.”

Inevitably, cries of inadequate funding go up whenever there is pressure on the criminal justice system to improve efficiency. The NCSC report addresses that too – “the inadequacy of staffing levels may be magnified because the management of felony case progress in the 2nd Judicial District needs improvement. If felony case flow management were improved, personnel resource needs would be a less salient consideration.”

Recently, Judge Parker ordered the county to create a plan to meet very specific population goals by September 1st. On its own, the only way the County can achieve these goals is to expand the number of available beds by either shipping inmates out or building a new facility. Both options will cost residents of Bernalillo County millions – millions that wouldn’t have to be spent if our criminal justice system partners would move accused felons from arrest to final disposition in a timely manner.

Bernalillo County taxpayers should not have to pay millions of dollars to ship inmates or build bigger jails simply because our criminal justice system moves too slowly and is reluctant to make significant systemic changes to improve efficiency.

Call it “finger pointing” if you like, I call it using data to identify a significant, costly, and unnecessary problem.


Note: The reports cited in this piece are available on the County’s website. You can find them at: http://www.bernco.gov/commission-district-5/ under the heading “Public Safety Information.”


The column above was published June 2nd, 2013 by the Albuquerque Journal under the title "Jail a Costly, Unnecessary Problem" (Subscription).

Friday, June 21, 2013

Consequences and "Fees"



You’ve heard it before – elections have consequences and it turns out that the election of 2012 will cost unincorporated Bernalillo County taxpayers an additional 3% for utilities.

 In October of 2012 the Bernalillo County Commission passed the Rate Payer Protection Act – a resolution that prohibited the county from taxing basic needs utilities for the use of county right of ways. The resolution also required the county to recover reasonable actual fees associated with accessing the publicly owned space and for those fees to be approved annually by the County Commission.

Fast forward to May of 2013 and a new Commission with an old “tax it if it moves” philosophy. The first step was to repeal the Rate Payer Protection Act and publish an ordinance that - if passed - would impose a 3% tax on all utilities that use county right of ways.

That’s 3% more on every water bill, electric bill, gas bill, waste water bill, and phone bill at a time when families are struggling just to survive.

The bill’s sponsor, Commissioner O’Malley, and County Public Works will tell you that they need the additional $6 million a year for roads. They’ll tell you that it’s a fee, not a tax, and not to worry, the utilities will pay.

While it’s true the county should be putting more money into roads, a tax is a tax even when you call it a “fee”, and utilities can, do, and will pass the proposed 3% “fee” on to you no matter what it’s called.

You see, the price charged for any good or service is equal to the cost plus a profit. Contrary to the opinions of some, a company must make a profit or it ceases to exist. Regulated utilities must justify their rates to the PRC – rates that include a profit. Costs are any kind of expenditure whether they are labor, construction, capital, regulatory, legal, taxes, and yes… “fees.”

To say that the county will be taxing “utilities” not the public is rhetorical, delusional, and false. In fact, state law requires that franchise fees “shall be stated as a separate line entry on a bill sent by a public utility.”

YOU will pay and you’ll pay on those basic services that you need most, all to use land that you already own, for a commodity that you can’t do without.

Yes roads are important, but all of the expenses associated with accessing your right of ways are already paid for by the utilities which include road cuts and repair to county standards. They even pay for “de-confliction” in those cases where other existing utilities must be moved in order to accommodate new pipes, wires, fiber, etc. And yes… you pay for all of those costs as well.
Not to mention the fact that you are already paying for road maintenance and construction through your property “fees” – more commonly known as property taxes.

There’s also the very real legal question of whether or not a county has the authority to impose a “franchise fee” that exceeds the county’s actual expenses.

NMSA 1978 § 62-1-3 states that a board of commissioners is authorized to impose charges for “reasonable actual expenses incurred in the granting of any franchise.” Unfortunately, the county is unable to provide anyone – including the county’s internal auditor – with the actual expense of granting a franchise.

So instead, they’re trying to sell you on the idea that the need for road maintenance and repair is a “reasonable actual” cost.

But it’s hard to believe that $30 million dollars over the next five years is either “reasonable” or “actual” - particularly when the county’s bond dedication for roads over the same period is less than $20 million.

In reality, this is just another scheme to separate you from your money and hide the fact that the county is doing a poor job of funding one of its core functions.

If the franchise fee weren’t enough, County Public Works is doubling down on construction costs as well by tripling the design review fee and adding an “application fee.” And you guessed it… You’ll get to pay for these increased fees as well.

In short, you will be paying for roads that you already pay for, on land that you already own, for services that you can’t live without, all because the current Commission cannot or will not use the money you already provide for its intended purpose. And the whole scheme is probably illegal to begin with.

---------------------------------------
The above column was published in the Albuquerque Journal June 21st, 2013 under the title "Call it a ‘fee,’ call it a ‘tax,’ but whatever you call it, it’s unfair." (Subscription)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Minimum Wage - Bad for Small Businesses, Worse for Workers



Minimum wage advocates would have you believe that business owners arbitrarily and sometimes capriciously set wages based solely on what they can get away with. That to own a business means that you are wealthy and most damning of all, that the wealth of a business was unfairly earned at the expense of those employed. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Most small businesses have less than 20 employees. They’re your mom and pops, your entrepreneurs, and your refugees from the job crisis.  They’re also people who have put their homes and savings on the line in order to pursue their dream, earn a living, and provide over 127,000 jobs to New Mexicans.

Small business owners really aren’t that different from the people they employ except they’re intimately familiar with 3:00AM insomnia while trying to figure out how to make payroll. Most have foregone their own paychecks so that an employee can have theirs, and all small business owners stand to lose far more than a job if their business fails. 

And until you’ve sat across the table from an employee and had to tell them that you can no longer afford to keep them despite their ability, their value to your company, and the friendship that developed over many years of working together, you can’t understand the sense of loss and failure that a business owner experiences when they are forced to let an employee go.

Commissioners O’Malley, Stebbins, and De La Cruz would like to make the burdens small businesses carry even heavier and at the same time make it more difficult for teens and entry-level workers to find a job.

The Commissioners minimum wage proposal would raise the first rung on the job ladder higher than it is in surrounding counties and states. To make matters worse, they would tie the Bernalillo County minimum wage to a national cost of living index - a move that would guarantee one of the highest minimum wages in the country.

The results of this purely political policy are fewer entry-level job opportunities, higher teen unemployment, and fewer small businesses. And its effects will only worsen over time thanks to the CPI index provision.

The only real beneficiaries of this policy are politicians who pander to extreme interest groups and larger businesses that have the ability to survive the arbitrarily imposed costs and benefit once their smaller competitors are forced out of business.

Make no mistake, minimum wage laws harm the most vulnerable businesses and wage-earners and Bernalillo County’s minimum wage proposal is no different.

Albuquerque residents are already feeling the effects of their minimum wage ordinance. Restaurants are cutting hours, prices are going up, and workers are losing shifts.

Commissioner Stebbins was correct at our March 12th meeting when she pointed out that having a minimum wage in the city places her all-city district at a disadvantage when competing with the rest of the county. However, you don’t impose the same bad policy countywide in order to correct a bad policy in the city.

The Commission should take a step back and assess the impact of the minimum wage in Albuquerque and potential effects to businesses in Bernalillo County. To that end, I proposed conducting a business survey that would have helped the county determine the impact of the minimum wage on the 1,400 businesses in the unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County.

Of course, that common sense approach was shot down by the three Commission proponents of the minimum wage who simply do not want to know how harmful their policy is to small businesses and to workers.

The Bernalillo County minimum wage proposal is the worst kind of political policy. It appeals to human kindness but it’s a regressive policy that makes the most vulnerable pay with their hours, their jobs, and their opportunities.

On April 23rd, the Bernalillo County Commission has a choice – it can support small businesses and workers, or it can force small businesses to raise prices, reduce employee hours, and lay off workers. You can be sure that I will be standing with small businesses and their workers.