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The Los Alamos County council weighed the cost/benefits of reinstituting a monthly mailing of the “County Line” newsletter to every household and voted 5-1 against the idea.
The cost to re-institute the print newsletter is estimated to be $48,000 per year and rising as postal rates continue to escalate.
Public Information Officer Julie Habiger will instead increase efforts to have citizens subscribe to the weekly online newsletter and work with local organizations to reach those who lack computer access.
The debate centered around the issues of an informed public versus cost and demands on staff time.
Council first debated whether to finance an extension of the printed newsletter during budget hearings in April. The project had been funded for two years to establish it within the community, with the original intention of moving to an online-only version.
Council voted not to include the newsletter in the FY 13 budget, but asked for a re-evaluation of the online “County Line” in six months.
Rental agreements for specialized equipment to apply address labels and labeling software expired in March and the equipment was returned. No space was allotted in the new Municipal Building’s media services space for the 8-foot-by-3-foot piece of equipment.
The “County Line” required approximately 14 hours a month of dedicated staff time to write, edit, print and prepare for mailing. Other Print Shop jobs were on hold for the two to three days it took to print and fold the newsletter.
The online newsletter requires approximately 1.5 hours of Habiger’s time each week with no impact on the Print Shop or other county resources.
The weekly newslette — which currently has 741 subscribers — is emailed to recipients on Friday. It contains a preview of the upcoming week’s events, public meetings and items on the council’s meeting agenda.
Online subscriptions saw a bump when the print version of the “County Line” was discontinued, but efforts such as advertisements and promotion at events have done little to increase subscriptions since then.
Staff investigated two alternatives for a print version of the “County Line.”
The first was to contract a third party to print and mail the newsletter. This would eliminate the cost of specialized equipment and the Print Shop staff time, but might not result in overall savings. Two people would still be required to write and design the publication.
Another disadvantage is that outside vendors usually require at least a week for printing and another week to fold, address and mail. The Print Shop accomplishes those tasks in two days.
The second option was to reduce the size of the newsletter and insert it in the monthly utility bill. The cost would be considerably lower than producing a two-sided, full color flyer, but the amount of information would be cut nearly in half.
Council would also have to approve an additional $19,200 per year for the public information office budget to cover additional postage for the utility bill mailings.
The most significant disadvantage to this option is timeliness. Utility bills are sent in cycles over a four-week span. Information would be old by the time those in the final cycle received it, and residents who use e-billing or whose utilities are included in their rent would not receive the insert.
Staff workload is an issue with any print option. A greater demand for audio/visual services is anticipated once the new municipal building opens and new tasks, such as more video/photography projects, have already been scheduled.
The county has also been working to decrease printing tasks for ecological and budgetary reasons.
Barbara Calef, president of the League of Women Voters of Los Alamos and council candidate Pete Sheehey both spoke in favor of a print version of the newsletter.
Calef’s concern was for those without computer access. She suggested making a print version of the newsletter optional.
Sheehey said that people have a perception of being uninformed about what is going on, or the priorities behind spending decisions.
“The costs are small to get an informed public as one means to build consensus,” Sheehey said. “The costs of a community conflict over a capital project are much greater than the cost of a newsletter.”
Council Chair Sharon Stover asked if a “less slick” newsletter would be less expensive. Habiger said that would have little effect on mailing costs or staff time, since without the links to the website, staff would have to write an in depth newsletter.
Councilor Geoff Rodgers, who made the motion in support of the online newsletter, noted there were many other sources of information for residents who are not online, such as advertised meetings, radio and newspaper coverage and hard copies with information about projects in key locations.
“This is a practical approach to efficient government. I think it’s appropriate for a community that prides itself on being technically savvy,” Rodgers said. “The few people who aren’t online have friends or families that are conversant. I don’t think that many people are left out who want to be included.”
Councilor Vincent Chiravalle tried to introduce a substitute motion to reinstate the printed newsletter by contracting out the printing, saying he still believed that was the best way to reach everyone. He did not receive a second and cast the only no vote on the original motion.
Councilors David Izraelevitz and Rick Reiss both weighed the cost versus the benefit.
Izraelevitz called it a “phenomenal expense” to reach the few people not online. He asked staff to find ways to increase subscriptions to the online version by working with the senior center, retirement communities and parent teacher organizations.
Stover said she would “champion more outreach” for online subscriptions, then went out on a limb to reach those who are stymied by the process.
“We want to make sure people are as connected and engaged as possible. We want to be as transparent as possible,” Stover said. “If you absolutely cannot get the information, give me a call and I’ll work with staff to help you set it up.”