By Kiera Hay
SANTA FEY COUNTY, N.M. — On Nov. 6, rural Santa Fe County residents will be asked to weigh in on a quarter-cent gross receipts tax increase that would raise money for the county Fire Department's capital needs.
The tax increase - about 25 cents on a $100 purchase - is expected to generate about $1.24 million annually, according to county officials. The money would be used for fire equipment vehicles, buildings, gear and similar items.
State law mandates the revenue cannot be used for salaries or benefits.
"For many years, the (fire) protection excise tax served as the fundamental means for the Santa Fe County Fire Department to support its volunteer districts and career staff with capital improvements, replacing outdated equipment and apparatus and all that good stuff," Santa Fe County Fire Chief David Sperling said.
"Without the tax, there's a big shortfall in our ability to fund those purchases," he said, adding that the need for services provided by the county fire department continues to increase.
The tax would apply to sales by businesses located in county areas outside the incorporated municipalities of Santa Fe, Española and Edgewood, and only residents in those unincorporated areas will vote on the tax. Approval would raise the rural county gross receipts tax rate from 6.625 percent to 6.875 percent.
The fire protection excise tax has been around since the mid-1980s and last expired in 2008.
In 2009, voters rejected a renewal proposal. But the tax was the only item on the ballot in an election that drew only 5 percent of 37,000 eligible county voters to the polls.
At the time, the tax was opposed by groups such as the Republican Party of Santa Fe County.
Opponents argued that it was unfair to place the funding burden on local taxpayers, and the county should find ways to fund the department's expenses using existing resources.
There doesn't appear to be any active opposition to the tax this election. "We're just leaving this up to the discretion of the individual voters," Republican Party chair Bruce Larsen told the Journal.
The items that would be funded by the fire tax are outlined in a five-year plan approved by the County Commission. A list of Fire Department needs can be found at www.santafecountynm.gov.
"What we identify and purchase through the tax revenues is not random. It's been carefully selected," Sperling said.
If the tax is approved, it probably won't be back on the ballot again in the near future. State legislation passed a few years ago essentially eliminated expiration dates for fire taxes.
"Our volunteers and our regular Fire Department are really operating with old equipment. To really receive any decent amount of money a year to get decent equipment that fire tax is really important," Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics said of the measure on the current ballot.
Copyright 2012 Albuquerque Journal