Consumers will have to pay another eighth of a cent in taxes for each dollar spent on most goods and services throughout Santa Fe County beginning Jan. 1, county commissioners decided Tuesday evening after dozens of residents, in often emotional testimony, argued for the tax increase partly to pay for a behavioral health crisis center.
And Santa Fe County voters will decide in a special election to be held by mid-September whether an additional sixteenth of a cent should be added on top of the countywide gross receipts tax rate.
The first measure, which is expected to generate about $4.6 million a year in new revenue for the county, passed unanimously. The tax rate within Santa Fe city limits, already one of the state’s highest, will grow to 8.4375 percent next year, while the tax rate in unincorporated parts of the county will rise to 7.125 percent.
The county says the money raised from the one-eighth increment will pay for more than 30 new public positions involving fire protection, the jail, the sheriff’s office and the emergency dispatch center. County employees will see a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in their pay, while $1.5 million will go toward operating a crisis center the county plans to build to treat people with mental illness or addiction to drugs or alcohol.
The commission split 3-2 on adopting the second proposed increase in the gross receipts tax rate, with Commissioners Ed Moreno and Anna Hansen voting in the minority.
Forty members of the public showed up to testify before the five-member commission about the tax proposals. Two speakers opposed any tax increases, including Yvonne Chicoine, chairwoman of the Santa Fe County Republican Party, who has become a vocal opponent of the tax hikes in recent months. She reiterated her argument that the county has not made the case that tax increases are the only way it could fund public safety and behavioral health services.
But most speakers urged commissioners to raise the tax to ensure funding for behavioral health services in a county that lacks a treatment center for those with mental illness or dependence on drugs or alcohol.
District Attorney Marco Serna was first to testify, saying he has accompanied law enforcement officers on ride-alongs and found that many of the calls were responses to drug overdoses.
Joe Jordan-Berenis, director of the Interfaith Community Shelter on Cerrillos Road, said the only “come-as-you-are” homeless shelter in Northern New Mexico saw more than 1,300 individuals for 20,000 bed nights last year. He said a behavioral health crisis triage center would reduce costs to taxpayers over time.
“Most of the people we see have chronic mental health issues, often aggravated by substance use issues,” he said. “From my perspective, the crisis center is something we needed yesterday.”
Riesha Fiorina of Santa Fe told commissioners she was testifying as a citizen concerned about the lack of resources for treating mental illness. She said she has six people in her family with mental illness. A sister recently overdosed while “self-medicating from her mental illness,” and a good friend recently took her life, she said.
“They were both tired of going in and out of the emergency room and not having the resources that they needed,” Fiorina said.
If voters approve the additional one-sixteenth increment in September, the gross receipts tax rate within city limits would reach 8.5 percent next year. The rate in unincorporated parts of the county would increase to 7.1875 percent.
The county estimates the extra tax levy would bring an additional $2.2 million annually.
A June 23 memo by County Attorney Greg Shaffer says county staff recommends against limiting the use of revenue generated by the tax to pay off county debt.
The ordinance authorizing a special election says the county would use the revenue raised from the one-sixteenth increment for “capital maintenance and operating expenditures for the Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department, Corrections Division and behavioral health services,” as well as the “payment of the principal, interest on, and other costs, including costs of issuance, related to revenue bonds issued for any purpose.”
A spreadsheet attached to Shaffer’s memo is more specific. It says about $1.1 million in revenue from the one-sixteenth increment should be used to pay for public safety positions, including nine more firefighters, three sheriff’s deputies, two emergency dispatchers and three jail employees.
About $1 million should be added to the funding for the new behavioral health center, the memo says, while over $100,000 would be used to fund two new employees: a behavioral health services manager and an employee to help seniors navigate services.
Commissioners will hold a special meeting next week to adopt an election resolution and proclamation, Shaffer said.
Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or email@example.com.