Taos Town Manager Oscar Rodríguez said the town’s effort to annex the regional airport could be completed as early as March, and the annexation is necessary for a major expansion at the airport to move forward.
The airport expansion, including a new crosswind runway, is expected to cost about $24 million. Most of the project would be federally funded, but the town must come up with a $1.2 million match.
Rodríguez said it would be “bad financial planning” to go into debt to complete the expansion without having a solid plan to recover revenues from it. “It would not be a responsible recommendation,” he said. “We need cash.”
As such, the town is eager to bring in the gross-receipts tax revenues that would be created by construction at the airport. Because the airport is now outside town limits, the town would see no revenue from the project unless the facility were annexed.
The proposed annexation would enlarge the town boundaries to include about six miles of highway right-of-way on US 64, extending from the existing northern town boundary to the Old Blinking Light intersection, then west to the airport. The result would be a narrow, dogleg town border running through El Prado and on to the mesa, connecting the airport as a distant appendage.
Rodríguez said the town stands to gain more tax revenue from the airport expansion than the county stands to lose.
Earlier this month, Rodríguez sent an email to Taos County Commission Chairman Dan Barrone explaining the fiscal impacts of the proposed annexation. Rodríguez wrote that the potential one-time loss to the county would be $225,000, while the town stands to gain $669,000.
“Why would we not want to do that on our own project?” Rodríguez said in an interview with The Taos News. “Right now, we’re getting nothing.”
The email also pointed out that the county’s current tax revenue from the area is minimal. “Generously assuming economic activity at the airport is as high as $500,000 among the seven businesses operating there today, annexation by the town will cost the county at very most $4,700 in gross receipts tax revenue,” Rodríguez wrote. “The loss the town sees every year the airport stays outside the town limits is $14,000.”
Barrone told The Taos News that, as an alternative to annexation, the county has proposed passing off the tax revenue generated by the airport expansion directly to the town. Barrone said such an offer is only part of ongoing negotiations and no final agreements have been made.
Deputy Taos County Manager Rick Bellis said the county is willing to collaborate with the town to find a solution that is in the best interest of the community as a whole. “I think we all realize that, with limited resources, we need to work together.”
Bellis said the county is waiting to see detailed financial projections analyzing the long-term benefits that the airport expansion is expected to have on the region. He also said the county would want to ensure services to residents and businesses in the area would not be adversely affected if the airport and highway right-of-way were annexed.
A report prepared by former town planning director William Morris found the only increased cost to the town would be $3,000 a year to pay for electricity to two traffic lights in the annexed zone. The report also said an additional town police presence along the annexed corridor may be needed as well.
Rodríguez said the town is still waiting for something in writing from the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) regarding the annexation. Email exchanges obtained through a public records request show town attorney Brian James has been asking NMDOT representatives to formalize an agreement under which the town would annex the right-of-way along Highway 64.
“I think it is fair to say that the town has no higher priority right now than to complete the steps toward annexation and getting the upgrades to the regional airport,” James wrote, later adding, “The town understands that there are likely to be expectations that the town would maintain the annexed (right of way) to NMDOT standards and is prepared to agree to such reasonable requirements as NMDOT may want to impose in that regard.”
In one email, James said an agreement with NMDOT would give the town leverage if the county were to oppose the annexation.
Email responses from a DOT employee suggest that the agency does not need to give any approval before the town moves to annex.
Talks between the town and the county are planned for the coming weeks, and discussions could touch on other issues, including how the airport and other facilities are managed.
Rodríguez said he would like to see the airport move toward more regional management, offering the regional landfill as an example. He said more cost- and risk-sharing among entities that benefit from the airport would make sense from the town’s perspective. The town currently operates the airport, including two employees, at an annual cost of about $142,000.
Rodríguez pointed to services the town provides to the wider community, including emergency dispatch, the recycling center, the library, fire protection and the Taos Youth and Family Center. He said a situation in which a town of 6,000 provides services to a population of 30,000 is “unsustainable.”
“The geometry is pretty upside-down here,” he said.
Rodríguez said the airport annexation may act as a “bellwether” for how the town and county can collaborate to address other issues.
In his Jan. 24 State of the Town address, Mayor Darren Córdova also spoke to the importance of regional collaboration. He said he hopes this year to bridge the gap between the town and county.
“It is long overdue,” he said. “I will do everything in my power to make it happen.”