The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

City approves tentative tax hike

 

November 10, 2019

Kevin Wilson

Howard Blake of Clovis addresses the Clovis City Commission during discussion on a property tax hike Thursday. The commission approved a provisional tax increase that will only take effect if the state and federal government supply money for a $90 million water infrastructure project as part of the Eastenr New Mexico Rural Water System.

CLOVIS - Mayor David Lansford believes to get a $90 million water infrastructure project going, local members are going to have to "put skin in the game" and supply the first $20 million before the state and federal governments supply the rest.

The Clovis city commission largely agreed, approving a property tax to help fund that $20 million while including language that protects taxpayers if the state and federal partners don't provide some skin in kind.

Following a two-hour discussion that got heated at times, commissioners voted 6-2 to increase the property tax rate by 1.554 mills. But the tax is not to be enacted until or unless the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority receives the remaining $70 million from state and federal officials before March 31, 2022.

Commissioners Helen Casaus and Gary Elliott opposed the measure, both wanting the plan go to voters for approval.

The tax would raise enough money to make bond payments for a $15 million portion of an interim groundwater component of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System, also known as the Ute Pipeline Project. The interim component, at a cost of $90 million, would connect all of the water authority members into what would be a functional water utility, and put the responsibility of eventually connecting the project to the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to state and federal entities.

The share would be $20 million authority members, $30 million state and $40 million federal. The $15 million figure is derived by Clovis being 75 percent of the water authority. Portales would be responsible for most of the remaining money, but its city council has not taken any action yet for such a purpose.

The approach is similar to one taken by the Lewis and Clark water project, Lansford has said in numerous public meetings leading up to the Thursday vote.

Lansford spoke uninterrupted for nearly a half-hour, followed by 20 minutes of commission comments before citizens were given the opportunity to weigh in. Lansford gave a presentation - available at cityofclovis.org - on how bleak the water supply situation has become and why the tax was necessary.

"In my mind, this is an investment for Clovis. The cost of this is far less than the cost of doing nothing. This decision is not going away. Those (hydrologic) maps are not getting any better."

Four options for implementing the tax were proposed:

•Option A: Enact the tax, effective November 2020.

• Option B: Approve the intent to enact the tax, without enactment until and unless the state and federal governments provide their $70 million share on or before March 31, 2022.

• Option C: Enact the tax, contingent on receiving a $30 million award from the state by the end of March 2020.

• Option D: Essentially Option B, with an option to either repeal or redesignate the tax.

The commission voted in its Oct. 22 meeting to go ahead creating the resolution for the tax increase, and commissioners answered some of the criticisms received since that vote.

Commissioner Sandra Taylor Sawyer said in response to charges the city was hurting elderly people on fixed incomes, she invited County Assessor Candace Morrison to discuss opportunities aging populations had for property tax relief. Morrison said about 30% of city residents met exemption conditions for either head of household, veteran, disabled veteran or over 65 with an annual income under $32,000. The exemptions created discounts ranging between $50 per year to voiding all property tax liability, or in some cases valuation rollbacks.

Barry Lewis of Clovis said he was absolutely in favor of the water plan, but absolutely against the tax coming to him without a vote.

""I don't think you commissioners ought to hand it to us and say, 'Here's your bill,'" Lewis said. "You don't have to spend two hours giving us a detailed explanation of why we need the water. If you live here, you know why we need the water."

District 1 Commissioner David Robinson said Option B "makes good business sense" because it puts some requirements on the state and federal governments, plus gives a window of people to get educated or provide the city with a better plan. He was opposed to Option D, out of fears the citizens would be told one thing only to see the taxes diverted to some future need.

Lansford said the redirection clause in Option D was included because the city would have water-based financial obligations no matter what, and the money could be used to incentivize retirement of irrigation wells in a worst-case scenario. However, he conceded the commission favored Option B, and they were the ones who had the votes.

Howard Blake said no matter what was done, a sunset clause needed to be placed on the tax. Commissioner Rube Render agreed, but City Manager Justin Howalt said establishing a sunset clause required knowledge of exactly when the tax would take effect. Render asked Howalt to advise the commission on when a sunset clause would be appropriate to consider, and he said he would.

Commissioner Chris Bryant moved to table the motion for 30 days so the city could educate voters on the issue. The tabling failed 5-3, with only Commissioners Casaus and Elliott joining Bryant in the vote.

Lansford said the matter of water has been discussed over the years with numerous public meetings and media reports, and there's only so much education that can happen when six people show up to a town hall meeting.

Steve Marez of Clovis said he'd never been to a city meeting before, and was looking to understand why the citizens faced so many restrictions on water usage when agricultural providers weren't.

"The city, as an entity, doesn't use what two dairies do in a day," Marez said. Lansford agreed irrigation use accounts for more than 90 percent of regional water usage, but any move to reduce current agricultural water rights would cause an even bigger outrage.

The new property tax increase, Lansford said, would pay for police and fire services, which he said should probably be provided through property taxes anyway. With the new property tax in place, the city would take the gross receipts taxes currently paying for police and fire services and redesignate them as bond payments for the water project. An ordinance to do that was introduced with an 8-0 vote.

 
 

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