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Budget season

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By Katy Korkos

It’s budget season for county government, with the publication of the county’s proposed budget this week and budget hearings coming up in April. This year’s biennial budget consideration by council and the public will benefit from what councilors have learned in a series of four discussions with Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne in recent months, concerning long-range financial planning and the capital improvement process.As County Administrator Max Baker said in his message introducing the budget to the public, “The coming year will be an exciting and extremely challenging one. The county council has provided clear strategic direction with well-developed goals and objectives. This $180.8 million budget builds upon existing momentum, and strongly pursues the achievement of those goals and objectives.”The goal of the budget is to work toward achieving five major goals:• managing costs while maintaining essential services;• improving the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) process;• developing the Long Range Financial Plan (LRFP); and • ensuring that the LRFP includes some un-programmed fiscal capacity for projects not yet included in the CIP. Those might include the implementation of the White Rock master plan or creation of a community-wide broadband network. Other projects already in the capital improvement pipeline include a new Judicial Police/Jail Complex, the Diamond Drive reconstruction project and a major project at Airport Basin.In addition to planning long-range, council requested that staff develop an improved process for capital improvements, as the previous process often resulted in very low cost estimates for projects, which then seemed to balloon as the scope and location became known.“It is possible to know what things are going to cost,” Lynne said. “That’s one of the things we’ve been focused on. After a certain amount of conceptual planning is done, and the scope and site are known, you should be able to do a cost estimate that includes a contingency.”Lynne said that in the past, the scope of capital planning for some projects was less complete than it will be with the improved process. “We were eager to get some of these projects going, so we put in placeholders,” he said. “Many times those were not actual budget numbers. In the future, we’ll explain what level of precision is included (with each number assigned to a project).” Lynne continued, “The fact that the county has a long-range process is appropriate and important,” given the unique nature of the county’s revenues from one major taxpayer, Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Funding of that one large taxpayer is largely out of our control,” Lynne said. “Part of our response is to be more conservative in our reserves. Our reserves are adequate given our unique circumstances.” He said that having sufficient reserve funds would benefit the county when it comes time to issue municipal bonds, to build the Airport Basin facilities and fund other large projects. Lynne added that being too conservative could also have a negative impact on the county, which would lose vital facilities and services.Lynne said that another way that Los Alamos is unique, which further emphasizes the need for long range planning, is in the fact that all of the infrastructure in town was created at once.“In a mature and normal community, one that has expanded over time, there would have been a few cycles of infrastructure replacement,” Lynne said. “Replacement would be fairly routine, and built into the planning. We were created in a very short period of time, and we have to deal with replacing everything in a very short period of time,” Lynne said.Lynne acknowledged that Los Alamos Public Schools  face the same problem of infrastructure replacement as the county.“The schools are part of that vital infrastructure, and our constituencies overlap 100 percent, geographically and from a property tax bonding capacity,” Lynne said.The county will hold budget hearings at 7 p.m. April 21, 22, 24 and 30 in Council Chambers, 475 20th St. In the April 21 session, Baker and Lynne will present the budget overview and capital projects discussion, while the three ensuing sessions will be concerned with operating budgets. In each session, the time from 7 to 7:30 p.m. is set aside specifically for public comment.Council will consider final changes and adoption of the budget at its regular meeting May 13.