Rio Rancho voters, by a large margin, kept the higher education tax intact.
Tuesday’s special election asked whether Rio Ranchoans wanted to cut the Municipal Higher Education Facilities Gross Receipts Tax from a quarter of a percent to one-eighth of a percent. Several city councilors had promised to work for a one-eighth percent gross receipts, or sales, tax to fund police, fire and emergency medical services if the measure passed.
Instead, 3,611 voters, or 59.3 percent, cast ballots against the change, according to unofficial results. Supporting the cut were 2,480 voters, or 40.7 percent.
Of the 56,859 registered voters eligible to cast a ballot in the election, 10.7 percent voted, city spokesman Peter Wells said in an email.
“Of course, we’re pleased by this renewal of Rio Rancho’s investment in higher education,” said UNM West Chief Executive Officer Wynn Goering. “It energizes us to continue to develop UNM West into everything it can be for the community and its students. We look forward to working with all our partners here and at UNM to make that happen.”
Voters initially passed the 20-year higher education facilities sales tax in 2008. The money collected from the tax goes into an account to be used only for buildings and infrastructure for four-year universities.
“We’d just like to thank the Committee for a Safe Rio Rancho for all their hard work and effort, and the citizens of Rio Rancho for their continued support of public safety,” said Rio Rancho Police & Communications Association Inc. President Justin L. Garcia. “We will continue to work with our city council to find new ways to fund growing public safety needs.”
The election result will be canvassed by 13th Judicial District Court Judge John F. Davis and certified as official Friday. The canvass will take place at Rio Rancho City Hall at 11 a.m.
This spring, City Councilor Chuck Wilkins proposed cutting the tax in half in order to enact a sales tax earmarked for public safety without raising the tax rate. Wilkins had not returned a phone call seeking comment by press time.
Mayor Tom Swisstack and Committee for Higher Education treasurer Bob Gallagher were happy the higher education tax remained as it was.
“This should not have been about the kids and the cops,” Swisstack said. “And it should indicate to city councilors how important education is. The people voted the first time, and they voted the second time. That’s what they wanted.”
Gallagher said he had a lot of respect for Wilkins and the other councilors who supported the change, but he thought they’d woken a silent majority.
“There are other elections in front of us in the next year or two, and the sleeping bear needs to stay awake,” he said. “We need to move Rio Rancho forward with a vision that validates what a great city Rio Rancho is to live in, to work in and to enjoy its quality of life.”
Gallagher and Swisstack both said they wanted to support city public safety, which Gallagher called outstanding.
Swisstack said he has a plan for funding public safety, but the climate wasn’t appropriate to mention it yet because of the way the council is structured. He wanted to wait until an independent public safety study the city has commissioned is finished so the plan will be based on the study instead of emotions.
Committee for a Safe Rio Rancho chairwoman Kerry Adams said she didn’t regret anything her group did to support the higher education tax cut and funding of public safety.
“I think we definitely heard the voice of the voters, and you can’t argue with that,” she said. “So, we’re going to go back to the drawing board, and we’re still going to try and figure out a way to fix this public safety crisis and make it work. So, we’re just going to keep on rolling.”
Mike Hartranft and Lee Ross of the Observer contributed to this story.