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Burgess outlines county's efforts

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By Arin McKenna

 

Los Alamos County Administrator Harry Burgess outlined the county’s challenges and accomplishments in 2013 during his annual "State of the County" address at Thursday’s Chamber Business Breakfast.

A sharply decreased revenue stream presented the biggest challenge, resulting in a budget reduction of approximately 20 percent.

“I commend all our staff for doing such an excellent job being able to come in at 20 percent below our prior year’s budget,” Burgess said.

Achievements include the opening of the new municipal building, the completion of the Ashley Pond Park improvements and the new indoor horse arena at the stables.

The Los Alamos Police department saw a changing of the guard with the retirement of Chief Wayne Torpy and the hiring of his replacement, Dino Sgambellone.

Burgess also assessed the county’s progress toward council’s strategic goals.

Financial sustainability

Burgess stressed that the reduction of revenues from Los Alamos National Laboratory highlights the need to diversify the economic base, and pointed towards the new Smith’s Marketplace as a step in that direction.

Smith’s target for opening is sometime in May. The company is focused on moving into its new space and has not solicited interest on the Mari-Mac Center space it vacates. The county has expressed some interest, including the possibility of locating an events center there.

Burgess also sees the new regional air service as a potential economic development driver, although it is off to a slow start. Federal grant money to subsidize New Mexico Airlines for empty seats–expected to last at least one year–will be gone by early next month. Council has approved $300,000 to continue the service and give it a chance to literally get off the ground.

Quality cultural and recreational amenities

Last year’s marketing and branding survey falls under this purview.

“The idea was to try to get something that was a basis for our continuing efforts moving forward, specifically as we go out to recruit other businesses,” Burgess said.

Recommendations on the branding should come before council in March.

The county hired the International Mountain Biking Association to analyze trail structure and recommend improvements that could attract mountain bikers. The county has already implemented some of the recommendations, including directional signage to trailheads. Planning is underway to place signage on the trails themselves.

The Bandelier shuttle service expanded last year.

“We’ve got more people showing up than we have available parking spaces,” Burgess said. The county is making efforts to capture the revenue potential from those visitors.

The county is also partnering with the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area to provide a reliable water source for fire protection, snowmaking and possibly development.

Infrastructure built a few years ago, including an open reservoir, provided water for helitankers during the Las Conchas fire. The reservoir was empty during the Thompson Ridge fire, due to the drought.

The county is requesting $400,000 in Capital Improvement Projects funds from the legislature to conduct on study to determine the best option for providing a consistent source of either potable or non-potable water.

The county continues to support efforts to create a Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

The Parks and Recreation Board is also taking up the Open Space plan, which was initiated several years ago and never finalized.

Economic vitality and innovation

 “We’re trying to encourage our retail activity. It’s somewhat of a different focus than you’d find in other communities, because retail has not traditionally fallen into economic development. The definition within the state even excluded retail when we talk about supporting economic development,” Burgess said.

“But locally, when you have that high leakage (about 70 percent), that means potential revenue is just going off the Hill. It’s a very viable strategy for us locally to consider if we can actually recirculate those dollars instead of having them earned up here and spent elsewhere.”

Well-planned commercial and residential growth

The county is conducting a major update of the Comprehensive Plan, which it expects to complete in 2015.

Some elements of the plan were implemented this year, including streamlining the permitting process and the adoption of a new sign ordinance. The one-stop-shopping facilitated by the new municipal building is also making it easier for developers to do business.

The county is finalizing an agreement for new software that allows those involved in the bidding process to submit online and check the status of their submissions.

“So we’re looking to make it a little more friendly for persons doing development,” Burgess said.

Housing and employment diversity

An RFP has been issued for multi-family/mixed use area of the A-19 site in White Rock.

“Every morning and evening we have about 7,000 people commuting one direction or the other, and we hope to capture some of those folks,” Burgess said.

The county is also in discussions with UNM-LA about the potential renovation of its 9th Street apartment complex, which could provide workforce housing.

“As we consider the expansion of Smith’s, there will be 40 to 50 employees in a certain income level that may not be able to purchase existing houses, but we need to provide for them,” Burgess said.

Operational excellence

“Admittedly, it’s gotten stalled in past years because there’s been a lot of turnover within the county and problems with some other items,” Burgess said.

“We’re presently developing a grassroots effort to improve our operations, with the idea of continually improving our operation,” Burgess said. “We believe that doing so will not only have benefits to how we operate but also to how we serve our community.”

Communication

“Always there’s been a push to be more transparent and open with the public,” Burgess said, citing the new Open Forum software–which allows members of the public to provide input on issues–and the streaming/recording capabilities in the new boards and commissions room as examples of recent efforts.

Continuum of education (K–20)

“We’re seeing new development on schools paid for through the bond issue, providing a much better visual for people coming to the community, and also, I’m sure, providing a great relief to the kids and the teachers,” Burgess said.

The county is also assisting the schools with infrastructure projects on school properties that could provide lease income.

Environmental stewardship

Last year’s big project was the implementation of a glass recycling program. Burgess encouraged residents and businesses to take advantage of the “yellow bins” to reduce the amount of trash that has to be trucked down to Rio Rancho, which can result in considerable savings to the county.

The NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) Smart Meter project is well underway. DPU installed 1,600 Smart Meters in the community that are being used to analyze whether pricing incentives will encourage people to use appliances, etc., in off-peak hours.

NEDO’s demonstration project ends this year, at which time the Smart House and the one-megawatt photovoltaic grid built on the landfill become county assets.

The county’s annual report should be available online by the end of the mont