Aug 10, 2018

Albuquerque’s Crisis, Part II: Will Citizens Make the Difference?

Albuquerque’s Crisis, Part II: Will Citizens Make the Difference? 

Kent Paterson/The Digie Zone 
Albuquerque: Silent strip mall./L. Paterson
 ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO  - In late 2017, Tim Keller became the mayor of Albuquerque. The former state auditor inherited a city variously mired in economic stagnation, a public safety crisis, a projected $40 million plus budgetary deficit, and ongoing controversy over a pricey, new rapid transit system that dotted a revamped Central Avenue with futuresque bus stations but months later still has no buses. 

The new administration was confronted by a perfect financial storm whipped up by declining tax revenues, rising utility and employee medical expenses and state government cutbacks in assistance to cities.  

The 40-year-old mayor has since carved out a political identity for his new municipal administration under the rubric of “One Albuquerque,” a term defined by Keller’s press office as something of a crusade to “turn government inside out and get the community involved in solving some of the city’s toughest challenges while promoting things that make Albuquerque great.”  

Befitting that strategy, the One Albuquerque Goals Summit convened four public meetings last month corresponding to the distinct quadrants that form the Duke City. The issues? Public safety, economics and the environment.

Facilitated by the non-profit organization New Mexico First, the One Albuquerque Goals Summit attendees met in small groups to modify or augment desired community conditions like "the public is safe."

Olivia Padilla-Jackson, deputy director of finance for the City of Albuquerque (CABQ) and one of the participating officials in the Goals Summit said homelessness, climate change and the "root causes of crime" were among the topics considered at the first two events.

Padilla-Jackson traced the history of the Goals Summit back to a 1995 city ordinance that mandates citizen input on city policy objectives. In 1998 a 12-member Indicators Progress Commission (IPC), currently headed by Fred Roth, was formed to chart and oversee the publication of the Albuquerque Progress Report, a state-of-the city assessment culled in part from the Goals Summits.  

In his introductory remarks to 2018 Goal Summit’s third gathering at the African American Performing Arts Center (AAPAC), Keller appealed for community unity.

“We have to come together as one Albuquerque and face the challenges,” he intoned. Acknowledging a fondness for community governance, the new mayor added that his administration had revived and expanded the biannual Goals Summit from one event to four. 

“Nobody really knew about this in the last few years but we’re going to work on it,” he said.

Assembled at the AAPAC for a Friday afternoon session, about 55-60 people broke into small groups dedicated to economic development, the environment and public safety.

This reporter attended a session of 22 people who mulled over the economy and public safety. Joining in were an Albuquerque Public Schools board member, business sector representatives, a commercial banker, political and social activists, a UNM police officer, and health care professionals.

Given lists of prewritten goals and desired conditions which had been honed by the IPC over the years through previous summits and consultations with experts, the group added their proposals for reaching common ground.  

"We're going to vote on (two) priorities, but every one of these is going to the city ", New Mexico First facilitator Katherine Cordova assured the group.

For the economy, the session opted for a resource center where training and communications would be available to marginalized populations, and wagered on better economic opportunities via public-private collaborations. 

Attracting new retirees, turning Albuquerque into a beacon of solar, art and technology industries, and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour were other ideas floated in the meeting.

“All the youth I work with are working two jobs..none of them are living on one job,” stressed political activist and living wage advocate Guy Watson.

In the public safety realm, proposals included developing specific city plans to fight neighborhood crime, relying on the regular budget instead of piecemeal tax increases like the gross receipts tax hike passed by the city council and signed by Mayor Keller, and changing public perceptions that homelessness is synonymous with crime.

Tom Dent, anti-violence activist and current member of a community policing board, broached the issue of law enforcement corruption and alluded to recent scandals involving inter-institutional breakdowns in cases of murdered, abused and sexually trafficked children. 

"You can see some of these horrible child welfare things," Dent said. "This information has to be shared within those departments." Supported by others, Dent proposed effective coordination involving APD, BCSCO, Children Youth and Families Department, the local jail, behavioral and mental health services, and emergency responders.

Resident Beatriz Valencia said public safety must consider vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle accidents, and include anti-crime solutions like improved lighting. 

Valencia later told this reporter that that five children have been victims of hit and run incidents outside the middle school where she is employed during the past few years, one of whom was hospitalized.

"I've been involved in trying to find a solution to this for two and a half years," she said, adding that a task force has made some progress.

Burqueños were deeply saddened last March when a student at another middle school, 12-year-old Eliza Justine Almuina, was killed by a SUV while walking in a crosswalk in front of her school.

A February 2018 City of Albuquerque document on Albuquerque’s budget deficit lays out the interrelationship between the economic and public safety issues discussed at the 2018 One Albuquerque Goals Summit, asserting that growth “can only happen in a community that has taken control of its public safety problems and provides a vibrant environment to nurture, retain and attract businesses and families. The staggering needs of our city just to maintain the status quo of services and make long overdue improvements to our public safety operations necessitate major changes.”

Coinciding with Albuquerque’s crime spike in the wake of the Great Recession, the average growth for the metro area wallowed below less than one percent annually, a rate lower than the national average of 1.6 percent and about half that of similar-sized, regional cities like El Paso and Tucson, according to the document.

More Problems and Solutions on the Table

The Saturday morning after the AAPAC meeting, another group of more than 40 people convened at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) for the last Goals Summit, part of which was conducted in Spanish for the first time.  

The ideas discussed including adding more monitoring stations to Albuquerque neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by pollution like San Jose, financial vouchers for the homeless and addict populations in return for mandatory participation in programs, a new program focused on meth addicts, and greater attention on the relationship of young people and the economy. 

Ultimately voted down by participants, the voucher and meth proposals engendered debate. Advocate Steven Abeyta maintained that meth users are "really desperate and need our help."

Selinda Guerrero, who introduced herself as a proud mom, said statistics show a more complex problem than exclusive meth addiction with "a lot of people flipping back and forth between meth and heroin."

According to Padilla-Jackson, the public input collected at the Goals Summit will be reviewed by Mayor Keller and presented to the city council for possible action by the end of the year. The process is important for framing resource allocations and budgets, she said. The city official said New Mexico First is responsible for writing a report on the 2018 Goals Summit which should be available soon.

Padilla-Jackson estimated about 220 people from “different walks of life” attended the four Goals Summit events. In order to accommodate broader public participation, two Saturday sessions were held while late afternoon meetings were organized in consideration of people who don’t have evening babysitters, she said.   

“I think in changing it from one location to the four different quadrants, people felt like we were going to their neighborhoods,” Padilla-Jackson added. A couple of the citizen participants also gave their take on the public exercise.

"I'm glad the city is doing them. I applaud any effort to engage the public in deciding how to shape our city," said Cristina Rogers of Urban ABQ/Vision Zero Albuquerque.  "I hope that after the summit (city officials) continue the work they are doing with equity and inclusion.”

Saying she previously worked 17 years for the City of Albuquerque under three different mayors but never had heard of the Goals Summit during those administrations, Guerrero said she appreciated "Keller's administration opening it up."

Nonetheless, more Saturday and evening sessions would be desirable so working greater numbers of working folk could participate, she added.  

An activist with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico, Guerrero delved into issues that arguably merit a summit of their own, critiquing a criminal justice system she contended targets low-income, communities of color and consigns large segments of the population to second class citizenship.

In an interview, Guerrero scored APD training, ticketing blitzes in low income neighborhoods, the treatment of ex-prisoners, and the expansion of the scandal prone private prison industry in the state. She differed with narratives that blame the public safety crisis on an understaffed APD or underfunded Bernalillo County District Attorney.    

"I don't think it's a funding issue. I think it's misused resources. I think if we got to the problem of that we wouldn't have to raise taxes and (could) start the community policing program earlier than suggested," Guerrero contended.

The activist maintained that the best security comes from neighbors watching out for each other. "When you have true community policing, you don't need cops," Guerrero insisted.

Asked if the current criminal justice system favors recidivism, slippage back into the lifestyle that landed a person behind bars, Guerrero nodded yes, offering examples of what amounts to societal straight jacking. Once out on the streets convicted felons are routinely denied Pell grants, small business loans, jobs, apartment rentals and more, she said.

Together with undocumented immigrants, convicted felons form a large layer of disenfranchised residents who don’t have voting rights, which in the case of New Mexico felons are restored only after a person completes a sentence- probation and/or parole included, Guerrero said.

"We have more second class citizenship now than we did in the Jim Crow South. We have reconstructed it in the form of being a felon," she added.

Author-journalist Kent Paterson, a frequent contributor to The Digie Zone, is an expert on New Mexico.