BELEN — Property taxes may increase in the Belen Consolidated Schools district depending on how a planned re-vote by the Belen Board of Education goes next week.
At it’s July 11 meeting, the board amended the wording on an action item on the agenda. While the change clarified what members were voting on, the change was contrary to the state’s Open Meetings Act. Under state law, the agenda for a public meeting must be finalized at least 72 hours before the meeting.
Items can be removed from an agenda or reordered, but they cannot be altered. The original agenda called for “Consideration of approval: Ed Tech Notes.” When it came time to approve the agenda, board president Jim Danner made a motion to amend action item H3 on the agenda to read “acceptance of Ed Tech Notes for vote by Belen Board of Education in the amount of 2 mills.”
Ed Tech Notes is a way districts can fund technology improvements by imposing a property tax within their boundaries. The enabling legislation for the tax allows a board to approve the tax itself or put it out for a public vote.
While the Belen board was within its authority to enact the tax itself, changing the language on the agenda — even to clarify what it was voting on — was an OMA violation.
“That’s against the law,” said Melanie Majors, interim director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “It is an easy fix though. They have to report the incident to the (New Mexico Attorney General’s) office, then do the vote again correctly.”
After the meeting last week, the News-Bulletin reached out to express concerns about the possibility of a violation and filed an OMA complaint with the AG’s office.
In an interview on July 18, Danner said the board had erred in changing the wording on the agenda and would be taking action to correct the mistake at its July 26 meeting.
“We messed up. At the next meeting, there will be an item on the agenda to rescind that vote and a very specific action item regarding Ed Tech Notes,” Danner said. “It’s the only way I think we can be as transparent as possible regarding this issue.”
Majors said the board should be complimented for addressing the mistake as soon as it was brought to light.
According to the draft agenda for the July 26 meeting, board will consider rescinding the vote; there is no action item listed to initiate the new tax.
At the July 11 meeting, Danner said the program had been discussed several times by the board over the last two years.
“How many times has someone told you, ‘Well, Los Lunas (Schools) does this and Los Lunas (Schools) does that.’ Well Los Lunas has been doing this for 15 years. They’ve had Ed Tech Notes. They are way ahead of us,” he said. “When we look at what will occur in two years and the (COVID) money is gone, we have to look at what we’re going to do technology wise.”
Board vice president Aubrey Tucker said he thought the implementation of the tax needed to be done by the board.
“When I first heard about it, I was adamant it go out for a vote,” Tucker said. “Then COVID hit and everybody was not prepared. In order to stay competitive and make sure students get what they need to get, the board should act.”
He continued, saying he didn’t feel 2 mills was enough and would have liked 4 mills.
“Will this raise taxes? Yes. If you don’t like it, I am up for reelection next year,” he said.
The tax will generate about $1.2 million a year, Danner said, adding about $66 to the tax bill of a property with market value of $100,000.
While the district has federal CARES funds to offset technology expenses for the coming year, the following year it does not, he noted, saying infrastructure for student connectivity was an “enormous problem” during school closures due to the pandemic.
“If you have a $200,000 home that’s $132 for taxes and kids get a computer each year for school. That’s a pretty good deal,” Danner said. “Is it a good deal if you don’t have kids? No. We have to look to the future. We’re not going to lose technology. It’s with us.”
Board secretary Max Cordova said while he agreed technology improvements were needed, he would rather put the question out to the voters.
“Every bond issue has been taken to the voters,” Cordova said. “My only objection is I would like to take this out to the voters, and hopefully they will support it.”
The measure passed 4-1 at the July 11 meeting, with Danner, Tucker, board members Larry Lindberg and Larry Garley voting in favor and Cordova voting no.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.