INSIGHTS: Robbing Peter’s library to pay Paul’s?

Public officials facing tough policy decisions often declare: “Government shouldn’t pick winners and losers.”

The truth is, every public funding decision picks winners and losers. Nobody likes to lose.

That’s why Rio Rancho’s mayor protested at a July 26 Sandoval County Commission meeting when county staff proposed to cut $700,000 from Rio Rancho’s share of 2018 library bond funding — from its historical $1.9 million allotment to $1.2 million. Libraries in the county’s outlying communities would share the funds cut from Rio Rancho.

Two of three “Rio Rancho” commissioners voted for the cuts. The third, Commissioner Dave Heil, cast the lone dissenting vote. All three seemed caught off guard.

Heil termed county staff’s July 26 library proposal “a serious imbalance” and went to work on a compromise to consider at the Aug. 9 commission meeting. Meanwhile, Rio Rancho officials considered floating their own library bond.

Eventually, county commissioners adopted a “new deal” Aug. 9, which still left Rio Rancho $400,000 short of its historic library funding level.

The county reduced its bonding cycle from three years to two. That would bring a 2020 bond that might include additional funding (a non-guaranteed IOU, since a new commission might not honor the “fix”).

So, again, the county’s underserved rural communities were pitted against the populous urban area that’s presumed to be more flush with cash and clout, and morally bound to share the wealth.

The “compromise” also creates a vaguely described library funding committee, to be comprised of local librarians, county staff, county commissioners, Rio Rancho officials and citizens “with knowledge of libraries.”

Is it favoritism, as some allege, to “make Rio Rancho whole” — or, more accurately, “partially whole”?

Library costs are not directly proportional to population, because even a small library carries a fixed cost to open its doors and provide minimal services. And in many smaller communities, libraries provide residents’ only access to services Rio Ranchoans take for granted — like the internet.

On the other hand, Rio Rancho’s libraries define the character and vision of the community. They also serve visitors from other parts of Sandoval County — a total of more than 300,000 visitors a year.

Despite the “new deal,” several questions remain unanswered:

• Who exactly came up with the county’s original July 26 funding proposal? Did the process include community stakeholder input, or was it the work of a few “insiders”?

• Why was the county’s bond counsel (a contractor hired to secure funds in the bond market) driving this major county policy change instead of the county manager?

• All three “Rio Rancho” commissioners campaigned on getting a “better deal” for the city based on its population and its large revenue contribution to the county budget. Why did two of them vote to support what the third described as “a serious imbalance” in Rio Rancho’s disfavor?

• Exactly who will serve on the new library committee? Will future commissions even continue with this advisory group?

Could Rio Rancho end up with zero library funding at some future date?

Sandoval County residents — including 96,000 Rio Ranchoans — want and deserve answers. And above all, a transparent decision-making process.

(Cheryl Everett is a Rio Rancho resident and former city councilor.)

(Guest columns and letters are published as submitted, without fact-checking or corrections. They represent the belief/opinion of the author. Publishing these viewpoints does not represent an endorsement by the Observer or any member of our staff. Our prevailing aim is to facilitate a spirited but rational and respectful community dialogue on the array of issues and challenges we face collectively. Toward that end, we welcome submissions from all perspectives.)

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