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Can we afford it?

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By Katy Korkos

 

It looked like a county council meeting on Friday morning, when councilors assembled in their chambers for their six-month strategic planning session. In the strategic session, councilors and staff get the chance to discuss a course for the work of county government outside the formal council meeting setting. There were several opportunities for public comment throughout the course of the day, but none was offered.Twice a year, Los Alamos County department heads meet with council to map out the planned activities of their departments. “Management Action Plans,” called MAPs, list the activities under one or more of six goals: • Maintain quality essential routine services;• improve intergovernmental relations;• diversify the economy;• revitalize Los Alamos and White Rock downtowns; • maintain environmental quality;• and improve transportation and mobility.Under those headings, a daunting slate of 38 strategic goals was presented to council, all of which will see ongoing work by staff in the year to come. Staff will proceed toward objectives such as completing the fire contract and making Trinity Site available for development, as well as ongoing goals such as protecting the parks and  strengthening regional activities.The afternoon session Friday was taken up with a discussion of how the capital improvement plan might be enhanced. Councilors expressed concern that they are often surprised by the expanding scope and escalating costs of projects, such as the judicial/police jail complex.“There are many things we need to address,” Councilor Nona Bowman said. “It’s really hard for me to vote on a project when we have no idea what the scope of the other things is.”“Back in September we indicated to council we realized there were issues with our CIP processes,” Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne said. Lynne said that a large committee, made up of staff from the finance department, engineering, community service, utilities department, community development and administration has been meeting to work on three major aspects of project development.Lynne said that the committee has identified several issues, and developed several procedures for staff to improve communication with the council.“It’s important to be more explicit about the terms we use,” he said. “We have to be a lot quicker to come back when there are scope changes.” Lynne added that it would be an improvement if there were a much longer time period for the development process before a project became an “officially listed” project. The committee has also recommended that staff present projects within the context of the larger budget.“We really need to have a scope and a budget in place on one time,” Councilor Robert Gibson said.Community Development Director Rick Bohn presented a flowchart developed by the committee, detailing several steps in project development, and several additional points in the development process at which staff will seek guidance from council before continuing. Each point will give the council the option to approve, revise, cancel or reconsider the project.“I like to boil things down to the simplest terms,” Council Chair Jim West said. “What do we want? Where are we going to put it? What’s it going to look like?” West said that after those questions were answered, then “What’s it going to cost?” and “Can we afford it?” would follow.Councilors debated extensively about when the cost of a project should be estimated and whether presenting costs to council early on was beneficial. Councilor Jim Hall said that he appreciated the layout of the process as proposed by Bohn, and would add a formal point for public input.West also told Lynne and Bohn, “If you listen to all of us, you’re never going to get there.”