Letter to the Editor: The Truth About the Mil Tax Increase

The Truth About the Mil Tax Increase
By PETER HEIMDAHL
Los Alamos
 
Here we go again. Los Alamos voters just approved a large real estate tax assessment to benefit K-12 schools, and now all the town’s power elites are lined up (an ominous omen for ordinary folk) with a very well financed (a big red flag) campaign to push another special election to TRIPLE the tax assessment levied for the local community college.
 

Los Alamos is a fairly affluent town, but we have a substantial population of fixed income taxpayers who simply cannot afford an increased tax bite. Sewage rates and homeowners insurance have skyrocketed recently and medical, dental, food, and gasoline costs ramp up relentlessly. Also, this tax increase will stress businesses that will soon be facing increased competition from the new Smith’s Marketplace. Plus, notice all the dying trees around Los Alamos due to the drought? Many homeowners will be blindsided with hefty tree removal bills. And how about some concern for the hundreds of laid off Lab workers?

It is disturbing that even though this issue could be placed on the next general election ballot at no cost, the pro tax contingent has called for a costly special election. The $30,000 bill will be sent to UNM-LA. The tax group claims no taxpayer money will be utilized. But they admit that student housing reserve money may augment private donations. Sounds like a clever end run to me.

Why would they squander such a large sum? It is a well-known strategy that it is easier to pass tax increases in special elections, which are held at odd times. It is a tactic to manipulate the democratic process because the general electorate is not paying attention and the group can rally its base to get out sympathetic voters.

But there is something else at play. Budget cuts to the Lab are reducing revenues to the county and we have a County Council that seems incapable of fiscal prudence. So the Council is chomping at the bit to jack up real estate taxes—this will be a big bump, and the Council doesn’t need voter approval. However, the Council is temporarily deferring their tax increase, giving the UNM-LA a window of opportunity to squeeze in the special election—because surly voters would likely vote down the college tax after being slammed with the new county levy.

Let me be clear that I think the pro-tax group is well-intentioned and believe they are doing the right thing—and that UNM-LA is an essential asset to the community and it does a commendable job. But in their zeal, I believe the pro tax increase group is using very misleading claims. They make a big point that our levy is only one mil and they haven’t had an “operational increase” in 30 years, inferring that citizens are not doing their proper duty to support the school. But what they don’t tell us is that the taxable value of existing property, plus new construction in Los Alamos has exploded. The one mil now has a much larger base to assess against. According to the Assessor’s Office, the taxable value of property in Los Alamos in 1983 was $260 million (in 2012 dollars). In 2012 the value ballooned to $700 million. So they HAVE raked in a huge operational increase, in real terms, of 260 percent! This claim is an insult to Los Alamos taxpayers, who in fact, have supported the school at admirable levels.

Citizens are also being bombarded with the assertion that Los Alamos is at the lowest levy for local college compared to other NM regions, with the not too subtle implication that Los Alamos taxpayers are a bunch of slackers. For example, Carlsbad has a mil levy of 2.85 mils, compared to Los Alamos at one mil. Wow, LA is getting off easy, right? Wrong.

They conveniently leave out the fact that Los Alamos has high valuations compared to these other areas. According to City-Data.com, the median value of a home in Carlsbad is $89,000 vs. $312,000 in Los Alamos. That homeowner in Carlsbad will pay only $84 vs. the Los Alamos bill of $100. So we are actually in the highest tier of support when you look at actual dollars collected from a typical homeowner. Adding the 2 mil increase will boost the Los Alamos median home’s bill’s college portion to a whopping $308 per year, more than three times what a typical Carlsbad homeowner pays. Again, these bogus claims are a slap in the face to taxpayers.

There are viable alternatives to raising taxes. The money raised for the campaign could instead be used to arrange some effective lobbying efforts to restore state funding. Also, the pro tax contingent could survey voters to determine who is for the tax, and then form a foundation to raise voluntary donations to benefit the college. I certainly would donate yearly to this “voluntary tax”.

Since the tax group has presented flawed claims, I wondered how credible are their cries of doom and gloom if the tax increase fails? Well, I’ve studied their budget and am surprised at how substantial and stable the existing base funding is—there is no financial crisis at UNM-LA. The absolute worst thing that could happen if the tax fails is that the college might have to shrink its offerings slightly. There are thousands of people who drive to Los Alamos to work every day, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a handful of our students make a short commute to Espanola to get a special interest class they need.

Given the tax group’s misrepresentations, and the fact that they seem to have little regard for the value of money by throwing away a huge sum to pay for an unnecessary special election, how can taxpayers trust the vast new tax windfall will be handled responsibly?

I urge all voters to support UNM-LA—at the current, very generous one mil level. Let’s end the war on fixed income property owners and vote this proposal down.

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