Council candidates discuss county spending practices

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By Carol A. Clark

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth and final article of a series in which questions were asked by the Monitor to the five candidates running for County Council. The candidates responses have run each Sunday leading up to early and absentee voting, which begins Tuesday. The election is Nov. 4.

The Monitor asked all candidates the same question: Do you think it was a good idea that the county has maxed out its spending on several building projects for the next 20-25 years?

Sharon Stover: Stover is a former County Councilor. She also served as assistant to the county administrator where she provided administrative support to the county administrator, managed and organized Council issues and initiatives, and coordinated with senior management staff.

She worked at the Parks and Recreation Department in a variety of assignments including secretary to the department director, recreation superintendent, and acting director. Stover is a founding member and past coordinator of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, which develops prevention and intervention programs for youth and their families. Stover is a 2001 graduate of Leadership New Mexico.

Stover: As the County addresses over 45-year aging infrastructure, I believe that it is good that it is planning with a long-term context and has left some flexibility in both spending and revenues in its 10-year plan. The County’s Long Range Financial Plan (LRFP), has a conservative approach for the financing of approved capital projects as it is difficult to predict what the future Gross Receipts Tax (GRT), dollars will be.

As our town’s primary economic engine, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), accounts for 70 percent of the GRT; and a likely assumption is a decline of GRT from LANL, with additional 30 percent GRT from other sources more stable. There are safety margins built into the LRFP including the evaluation of a worst case scenario, a 25 percent reduction.

There is an additional $34 million capacity for GRT, however, any tax would require a vote by the public. The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is a 10-year plan with input from board and committees and staff, and as priorities and funding fluctuates, it is Council’s option to change the plan.

I believe the new Council will focus on implementation and provide oversight of the projects, and make adjustments as required in either service levels or the CIP.

I fully realize that there is not a lot of wiggle room for the next few years for the new Council to spend money on additional projects. However, I do not completely agree with the assertion that the County has maxed out its spending for the next 20-25 years.

Michael Wismer: Wismer is a former County Councilor. He has more than 15 years of senior level experience completing multi-dimensional tasks and projects and meeting complex organizational priorities. He is experienced in strategic planning, organizational development, general operations, financial management and workforce development. Wismer has served on the local personnel board and was elected and served as a County Commissioner for a municipality of 19,000.

He is skilled in many aspects of federal and municipal government operations, public policy development and legislative and intergovernmental relations. Wismer's military experience includes leadership responsibilities, especially in the areas of personnel management, staffing, logistics and budget development. He serves as an adjunct faculty member for two universities.

Wismer: I don’t agree with the basic assumption that the County has broken the bank with spending relative to the current ongoing projects. The important issue for the Council and, any candidate seeking election is to have the capacity to make careful and deliberate decisions regarding all capital projects. In certain cases, difficult decision must be made to ensure our infrastructure needs are met and that adequate maintenance and operational costs are allocated so that we avoid the type of onslaught of simultaneous projects we now face.

The current Council recognizes that infrastructure projects like the current Diamond Drive project are often unpopular and inconvenient yet necessary. The difficult piece for any Councilor or candidate is the ability to balance priorities and decide where to spend taxpayer dollars. As stewards of the public monies, that fiscal responsibility cannot be underscored enough. I believe I have the experience and financial management skills to make those kinds of decisions.

Manuel Baca: Baca has 14 years experience in financial management, budget analysis, cost containment and personnel management. He has 25 years experience in the health care profession under various disciplines. Baca served eight years in the United States Navy providing medical care and support to active duty Navy and Marine personnel and their dependants. He provided administrative support to medical and administrative personnel and supervised enlisted personnel.

Baca served as administrative assistant to the director of medical services where he supervised the operation of five medical clinics in the directorate including staffing and policy and procedure management. His management experience also includes working at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, setting up the SE Heights Center for Family Health and La Sierra Medical Clinic. Baca is a member of the Los Alamos Little Theatre and serves on the JUNTOS Steering Committee.


To be honest I haven’t seen the numbers that prove this and frankly don’t know that this is the case. If in fact we have done so then there is something very wrong with our system and we need to take a closer look at how and why we spend.

I believe that part of the problem is what locals call “analysis paralysis.” Our County has been run mainly by people who have worked for the lab or had some close affiliation to the lab and with that comes the scientific mindset that we must explore all the options thoroughly and several times in order to make the right decision.

This unfortunately costs money and only adds to the costs of any building project. So if in fact we have maxed out our spending as you say in your question then I say it’s time for some new blood in Council and some fresh ideas who don’t mix motion with progress and understand that the money isn’t going to just magically appear.

It’s time we get a different perspective on how things are done and why it’s important to understand the reason behind carefully monitoring your spending. As a private businessman who has to do that to survive I believe I can bring a fresh perspective to the council in the way it spends money.

Vincent Chiravalle: Chiravalle is president of the homeowners association for the neighborhood in which he lives. He also was elected and serves as treasurer of the Republican Party of Los Alamos. Chiravalle's thesis topic when earning his PhD. in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering from Princeton University in 2003 was An Experimental and Numerical Study of a Two-Stage Microwave Electrothermal Thruster.

Among his many accomplishments, Chiravalle has put together an LIF spectroscopy experiment for measuring the temperature and velocity at the exit of a microwave plasma thruster, which involved choosing the optics for focusing the laser beam and collecting the scattered light, setting up a LabView data acquisition system and completely realigning a Ti:Sapphire laser ring cavity. He also has published several papers.

Chiravalle: In my opinion Council has made a mistake by committing a sizable part of our projected public money over the next 20 years towards big capital projects such as expansive road work, an overly elaborate municipal building and a separate judicial complex, especially since these projects will do little to expand our economy and create new high paying jobs in Los Alamos County.

The old municipal building served the County’s needs quite well including judicial functions for many years. I believe that a new municipal building could be built at the site of the old building for about $15 million.

If Council had chosen this route instead of electing to build both a new municipal building ($25 million) and a new judicial complex ($20 million) we could have saved at least $30 million.

The financial projections of today cannot account for the unforeseen events of the future. Many people have already lost their jobs and further downsizing of the laboratory by more than 25 percent over than next 20 years could become reality.

In addition, most of the County revenue today comes in the form of GRT tax from the laboratory and it is not clear to me how much of the current amount we are going to receive over the long term. The possibility exists for more job losses and diminishing GRT revenue, therefore, it would be prudent to adopt a more fiscally conservative approach in our long term financial plan, lest we find our financial projections falling short in the future.

Given our excessive and wasteful spending today, do we have the right to expect homeowners and small business owners to pay more taxes in the future to make up for any short fall in our budget projections?

Ken Milder: Milder is the Council incumbent and also served on Council in the 1980s. His background includes engineering, security, project management, administration, operations, budgeting, finance, and accounting. Milder chaired the working group for the turn-up of the Strategic Computing Complex (Nicholas C. Metropolis Center for Modeling and Simulation). This assignment required coordination between multiple groups/divisions and the integration of diverse technical competencies. He guided project planning and management, resource tracking, and conflict resolution among stakeholders through effective interpersonal skills and extensive knowledge of Los Alamos National Laboratory policies and procedures.

Milder: The notion that the County “has maxed out its spending” must be addressed. Not only is the statement incorrect, for any Council to do such a thing would be gross negligence. Numerous funding mechanisms and sources were purposely excluded from the capital projects financial analysis. It is the responsibility of each Council to consider the community’s future financial wellbeing.

Let’s now look at what the community is trying to do. For example, prior to LANS assuming management of LANL, Los Alamos unemployment hovered around 1.4 percent. May’s preliminary rate, however, is 2.8 percent. Although not high by state and national standards (unless you are unemployed!), it places new urgency on efforts to diversify our local economy. It’s likely that LANL employment will continue to shrink.

The Council recently funded a contract with the Los Alamos Community Development Corporation (LACDC) including focused business recruitment. What do businesses look for when they consider locating in a new community? Obviously, infrastructure (buildings, utilities, etc.) must be readily available. A business can’t wait four or five years for infrastructure to be built. Next, is the town attractive; does it take pride in itself? Are there quality schools? What amenities are available? What is the quality of life?

We must responsibly invest in our community to secure our future. In addition, with previously unprecedented cooperation, councilors and school board members have been working to explore ways the County can support the schools. Trinity Site and Airport Basin are the first efforts. We must continue to work cooperatively to find other opportunities.