By Marisa Demarco
— At last night’s Bernalillo County Commission meeting, Maria Baca was on hand to speak about the Open Pit Registry Act signed by President Obama in January. Her husband Master Sgt. Jessey Baca was diagnosed with lung disease after serving in Iraq. His doctor linked his respiratory concerns to toxic chemicals from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pits are used to dispose of waste near bases.
Sen. Tom Udall sponsored the bill, which creates a registry for members of the military who may have been exposed to burn-pit chemicals. The goal is to help physicians and the Department of Veterans Affairs track the effects. The new law also aims to give affected people information about the associated illnesses and treatments.
Maria Baca thanked American Airlines and the Albuquerque International Sunport for helping her family fly to and from Washington to work on the measure.
The Commission is considering a survey of businesses about a minimum wage boost. The wage was increased this year in Albuquerque but not in the unincorporated regions of Bernalillo County. Mayling Armijo, director of the county’s Economic Development Department, said a study would cost between $50,000 and $75,000 and take six to nine weeks to complete.
Armijo said the Commission would not have to vote on the expenditure, because a county entity would be doing the work. Commission Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins asked that since the appropriation was so large, it be put to a vote anyway at the next meeting.
Commissioner Wayne Johnson said the survey must be done. “It will give us a good picture of what we’re really doing here.” Commissioner Art De La Cruz, sponsor of the wage initiative, said a draft will be available next week for the public and his colleagues to view.
Issue: Strip Club Crackdown
Hart Stebbins introduced a Sexually Oriented Business Ordinance. A similar measure was passed by Albuquerque’s City Council in 2012. This one would ensure strip club operators don’t have criminal backgrounds and minors aren’t hired or employed against their will. It also eliminates private rooms to ensure illegal sex acts don’t take place.
When the issue was considered by the City Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico objected to the record-keeping requirements. Detailed records—including home addresses—would have to be kept on all club employees. Those records would be subject inspection by city workers at any time. The ACLU and dancers brought up concerns about stalking and invasion of privacy.
The ordinance puts in place what Maggie Hart Stebbins called “common-sense licensing rules” that “provide minimal oversight.” She said the county’s ordinance was modeled off the city’s, and she amended it to ax the record-keeping portion. Her goal, she said, was to protect women who work in those establishments, and it is not the intent of the ordinance to censor entertainment.
The measure passed 4 to 1, with Commissioner Wayne Johnson voting against it.
In both instances, it’s been unclear what prompted the governmental concern over strip clubs, which are legal businesses. No specific cases of human trafficking or sexual assault were brought to light. Patterns of illegal activity are assumed. The county ordinance aims to “lessen the adverse secondary effects of sexually oriented businesses,” but what are those secondary effects?
Compass reporter Margaret Wright reported on this issue last year and found that some workers and managers in the industry had not been notified of the change in regulation.
Issue: Gun Buyback
The county conducted its first gun buyback day on Saturday, Feb. 9, in the North Valley. People who anonymously surrendered their firearms were compensated—no questions asked. If the weapons were stolen, they were to be returned to their rightful owners. Deputy County Manager Tom Swisstack said the program brought in 333 weapons, seven of which were assault rifles. The $50,000 put up by the county for purchasing the guns ran out within two hours.
Swisstack added that it’s the most successful buyback day in the state so far. He thanked Sheriff Dan Houston for doing an outstanding job, and Commissioner Debbie O’Malley for moving the program forward.
O’Malley thanked everyone for the compliments but said when she got to the North Valley Command Center on Saturday, she was surrounded by other gun traders in the parking lot. They waited outside harassing folks, she said, telling them they would buy the guns for more than the county was paying. She said she was surprised people could do that kind of gun trading in a parking lot without permits.
Swisstack assured that next time, the sheriff would block off the area around the substation. The next buyback day is Saturday, Feb. 23, at the South Area Command Center (2039 Isleta SW).
The traders annoying the folks surrendering their weapons are a symptom of lax regulation. It’s astonishing to O’Malley that this kind of gun buying and selling can happen in the parking lot—of a sheriff’s substation, no less—without background checks or records. That loophole has been the subject of some scrutiny in the national firearm debate.
Issue: Silver Moon Lodge
The Commission was considering an $8 million tax break over 32 years for the Silver Moon Lodge, an apartment complex slated for 10th Street and Park Avenue Downtown. The Lodge would include 151 apartments—86 studios and 64 one bedrooms. The project is considered “workforce housing,” which is offered to people who are working and above the poverty line but remain below a set income level.
Neighbors object to the project because it lacks parking. There will be 23 onsite spots and 70 street parking spaces. Anna Muller has been a Downtown advocate for decades. (She won’t even eat at restaurants east of Broadway, she said.) The region’s progress is fragile, she added, and the density is too high with the four-story Silver Moon Lodge project.
Commissioners expressed dismay that this debate had ended up in their laps. The city handles zoning requests in Downtown Albuquerque, and the process there didn’t allow for public comment, Johnson said. De La Cruz said these arguments should have played out before the City Council. “We should vote on what we were charged to vote on and keep it as simple as we can,” he added. He also expressed disappointment that some neighbors were objecting to the workforce housing element of the project.
O’Malley said that though it’s easy to blame the city, the county was charged with essentially subsidizing Silver Moon. She moved to defer the issue for two more weeks to allow the developer time to reduce the density and get parking in order. Her motion failed 3-2, with only Hart Stebbins and O’Malley voting in favor of it.
The $8 million in revenue bonds passed, 4-1, with O’Malley voting against ordinance.
Commissioner Lonnie Talbert made a good point at the meeting: Developers over the last decade or so have tried to fill Downtown with high-end lofts. Buildings of expensive urban housing remain vacant. The urban revitalization everyone was imagining didn’t happen because your average Burqueño couldn’t afford it. Maybe a less pricey option will help bring residents—and therefore customers and businesses—to Albuquerque’s declining Downtown.
It seems that commissioners were hesitant to touch on the broader concerns of Silver Moon, saying the Council should have handled them already. It’s interesting that O’Malley—whose done a lot for workforce housing in Albuquerque during her time as a city councilor—was willing to issue an ultimatum to the developer in this case.
The next meeting is Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 5 p.m. in the Vincent E. Griego Chambers in the basement of City Hall. Dig through the agenda the preceding Friday at bit.ly/BernCoAgenda.