When it comes to the higher education tax, opinions are in no short supply. And now — a few weeks before a special election that could reduce future funding for UNM’s Rio Rancho campus — the university announced it will collaborate with Central New Mexico Community College on a new building project in the City Center.
On Aug. 20, voters will decide whether to reduce the tax to one-eighth cent. Some city councilors say they’ll establish a new one-eighth cent tax dedicated to the police and fire departments if the cut is approved.
Now UNM and CNM officials say they are designing a new building that would be located near the adjacent campuses of UNM West and CNM and focus on science, technology, engineering, health care and mathematics, according to a joint announcement from the institutions. The public will be able to weigh in the plan at design “charrettes” planned in early August, with dates and locations to be established in concert with Rio Rancho business and civic leaders.
“UNM, partnering with CNM and the city, will likely discuss all kinds of possibilities during the planning process. The charrette is intended to bring community members,” said Beth Miller, the university’s director of outreach and strategic initiatives. “I think we would like to talk about a longer view with the community. What should UNM West pursue that will distinguish this campus from the main campus …?”
Wynn Goering, newly-appointed CEO of UNM West, said the goal of the meetings is to determine the needs of the community as well as UNM’s and CNM’s and how a new building can address those.
The other important goal is to find out how to build a new building, “including and especially how various funding options might apply,” Goering said.
“That said, we (UNM) would, of course, hope that this could be done in such a way as to utilize the funds generated by the GRT,” he said, referring to the city’s quarter-cent gross receipts tax dedicated to higher education buildings and infrastructure.
“When the time comes I hope the appropriate city officials will help us explore that.”
He added that, although a few city councilors have questioned the timing of the meeting, it has little to do with the election.
“There’s nothing mysterious about the timing of the charrette. … CNM and UNM have been having discussions about possibly sharing the next building project in Rio Rancho since their respective first buildings went up three years ago.”
Goeing said some councilors “have been demanding that UNM present ‘a plan’ for months. Now that we have, he and other councilors object to the timing? I think that underscores the reality that they are uninterested in UNM’s plans — they simply want the money.”
It is still something of an open question whether the city could actually use higher education gross receipts tax money to help pay for the building under the proposed collaboration. CNM already receives financial support as the result of a mill levy, or property tax, for that college to pay for its infrastructure needs.
Rio Rancho Mayor Tom Swisstack said if and when the university brings a request for funding to the city council, the wording of the request and possible agreement would be very important.
He said he’s been courting higher education institutions for Rio Rancho since the mid-90s.
“The accessibility of higher education could be easier and more collaborative so that the student would receive a more cohesive education plan,” he said. “This gives them the opportunity to start to put together a seamless system … The students are going to benefit.”
For the university to tap into that money, the city ordinance that sets the rules for how the money is to be spent would have to be changed, Councilor Lonnie Clayton said.
He said the money is designated only for four-year higher education institutions and CNM is a two-year college.
He also said he made numerous visits to the UNM West campus and took an informal head count of students there.
According to his estimation, only about a quarter of the building is being put to use.
“If you have a building where 26 percent is being used, would you want to spend your money and taxpayer money to build another building?” he asked.
Crumb tells all
After all the talk about the upcoming special election, Councilor Tim Crum said he’ll be holding a forum of his own — Aug. 6 at 7:15 p.m. at the Cabezon Recreation Center — to discuss why he voted in favor of the special election to begin with.
He said he places a lot of importance on public safety and feels response times for firefighters and police are slipping.
Crum also noted that a quarter-cent gross receipts tax the governing body approved several years ago was discussed as a tax that would go to fund emergency services.
Instead of being dedicated to police and firefighters, that money went into the general fund, he said.
The majority of the council voted in favor of the measure, he said.
“I voted against it,” he said. “(At the time), my colleagues could not guarantee those monies would go to public safety. … I thought it was prudent to send (the current tax matter) to the voters. I believe in voter wisdom.”