A subdued, low-turnout special election ended Tuesday with a message delivered to Santa Fe County loud and clear: The gross receipts tax rate should go no higher.

Unofficial numbers showed that 70 percent of county voters who cast ballots shot down a proposed one-sixteenth-cent increase to the county gross receipts tax rate, a fractional hike that would have added 6.25 cents in tax on every $100 spent for most goods and services in Santa Fe and the rest of the county.

“It’s high enough,” voter Melissa Sanchez, a city resident who works in the public school system, said of the tax rate, which already is scheduled to climb by an eighth of a cent Jan. 1. “For some of us, that means less food on the table.”

“Everybody shies away from Santa Fe already,” said Eric Sanchez, her husband. “You have so many people living in the surrounding areas — people are willing to commute just to not live here.”

Turnout was paltry. Only 7,945 ballots were cast — roughly 8 percent of the county’s 94,545 registered voters — according to unofficial results posted online Tuesday night by the County Clerk’s Office. But the margin was decisive.

The ballot measure represented what would have been a second increase to the county’s rate in a single year, after county commissioners voted in late June to enact a one-eighth-cent increase. That increment, when it comes into effect Jan. 1, is projected to bring in $4.6 million annually, which the county says it will put toward new safety personnel positions and a bolstered midtown behavioral health services center.

The one-eighth-cent measure was heralded by a broad swath of citizens at the County Commission chambers upon its passage, with both advocates and community members saying there is a dire need for improved services in the realms of mental illness and drug abuse.

A few months later, offered the chance to tack on another tax increase themselves, voters resoundingly said no.

“You can’t just keep raising and raising and raising taxes,” retiree Larry Logan said outside a north-side Santa Fe voting center Tuesday.

“They keep finding ways to expand our tax burden,” said Fran Logan, his wife. “We didn’t move here just to pay taxes.”

The one-sixteenth-cent increment would have brought in some $2.2 million each year, revenue the county also would have allocated to public safety and behavioral health.

David Seybold, a retired Española propane businessman, said after voting Tuesday that the second increment was unnecessary and called the county’s planned allocations a “B.S. cause.”

“They’ve got the money for it already,” he said. Referring specifically to the planned behavioral health center in Santa Fe, Seybold said, “That kind of stuff is a money pit. How can they ever prove results?”

The slow pace Tuesday at voting convenience centers spread across the nearly 2,000-square-mile county suggested turnout would be light.

During the lunchtime hour at a polling place near Española, only one man voted. After voting centers had been open more than seven full hours, only 48 people had cast ballots in Pojoaque, where a pair of poll workers chatted amiably in an empty room.

Even at voting centers in Santa Fe, an irregular, infrequent stream of voters passed through. Short lines formed at the Santa Fe County Fairgrounds voting center in the late afternoon, but voters were clear of those in five minutes or less.

During the general election in November, more than 63,000 Santa Fe County voters responded to an advisory ballot question asking whether they would support a one-eighth-cent gross receipts tax increase to support behavioral health. (That advisory question received 52 percent support.)

Many voters who did turn out Tuesday said they felt the county had not made enough of a case for the tax or the special election in general.

County commissioners voted 3-2 to put the increment on the ballot but generally refrained from endorsing it; instead, they said, while enhanced mental health services and public safety positions would be welcome, voters should decide. And county officials, saying they could only educate about the tax and not endorse it, cited a section of the county code of conduct that prohibits personnel from influencing the outcome of an election.

The election was mentioned at recent meetings of the Board of County Commissioners, with County Manager Katherine Miller once walking through where the potential new revenue would generally go, commissioners encouraging the public to vote and County Clerk Geraldine Salazar issuing reminders that an election was approaching.

“Not at all!” laughed Sebastian Boss, a solar panel installer, when asked if the county had done enough to notify voters, though he said he was in favor because he wanted more programs for behavioral health patients.

The county special election presented a stark contrast to the city’s special election on a proposed sugary-beverage tax in May, which drew almost 20,000 people, or 38 percent of registered voters within Santa Fe’s city limits. That tax measure, which would have funded an expansion of early childhood education, also failed, but it was clearly still front and center in some voters’ minds.

“This whole idea of breaking up civic needs into tiny chunks — approve this, you’ll get money for preschool, or the fire department, the police department, and maybe, if we’re lucky, a mental health triage center — it’s an insult to the voters,” said retired technical writer James M. Yeager. “Revenue ought to be dispersed as part of a rational plan.”

The contentious city special election measure failed with 58 percent against, 42 percent in favor.

According to the unofficial results of Tuesday’s election, county voters by an even wider margin made clear that higher gross receipts taxes, which function like sales taxes, were not in their view the proper avenue for the county’s planned expenditures.

The city of Santa Fe’s gross receipts tax rate already is among the highest in the state. A county increase affects the rate within city limits, which before Tuesday had already risen by 1.875 percentage points since 2000.

While city government also depends on revenue from gross receipts taxes, higher rates can, some argue, depress business activity and disproportionately affect lower-income people.

In Española, meanwhile, the tax rate is even higher — at least in the portions of the city that sit in Santa Fe County.

The border with Rio Arriba County zigzags through town; on the Santa Fe County side, the gross receipts tax is almost half a percentage point higher.

But not all were sweating an increased rate Tuesday. Lori Garcia, an Española businesswoman on the Santa Fe County side, said Tuesday a tax increase “is what it is.”

The owner of an Española herbs and yoga storefront for 17 years, Garcia said she explains to customers her taxes might be higher than businesses in neighboring Rio Arriba County and that customers understand: “They have to pay taxes, too.”

“In the long run, it doesn’t hurt us,” she said of higher taxes. A “rapport with clients” is more important for a successful business, she said, than a low tax rate.

Miller, the Santa Fe County manager, said in a recent interview that if the tax measure were to fail at the polls that the planned behavioral health center and additional firefighters, deputies, emergency dispatch workers and corrections employees would lose a “dedicated funding stream.”

“The fact is we’ll have to do it incrementally, and that incremental level will be minimal because it will be competing with all other countywide needs,” she said.

Many voters who said they were in support of the measure Tuesday cited the behavioral health component of the new revenue as their primary motivation.

All the same, by virtue of the one-eighth-cent increase approved by county commissioners in June, the county and city rates will rise Jan. 1 to 7.125 percent and 8.4375 percent respectively. Only Los Alamos and Taos counties will have a higher rate than Santa Fe County; only Raton, Red River, Taos, Taos Ski Valley and Truth or Consequences will have rates higher than the city of Santa Fe.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.

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