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Council candidates tackle local economic issues

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By Kirsten Laskey

Economic issues were the focus for Los Alamos County Council candidates as they shared their ideas and thoughts during a forum Thursday night at the Los Alamos Research Park.

Debbie Gill, Geoff Rodgers, Ken Johnson, Jim Hall, Fran Berting and Ron Selvage attended the forum, which the Los Alamos Monitor and the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce sponsored. Candidate, Betty Ann Gunther was unable to attend.

The questions, which the public submitted, ranged from how to use the county’s reserves to how the county could be friendlier to businesses.

There was little disagreement that Los Alamos is doing alright, but there is still room for improvement. As Selvage said, “Los Alamos is a great place …. but it’s still lacking and I think it could be a lot better.”

With the question regarding the projected increase in the county’s reserves due to the gross receipts from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Gill said the projected windfall was something the county needs to plan for and be pro-active. She said the plan needs to benefit people of all ages.

Gill added, “I would like to see an improved, upgraded communication process with the public.” She envisions this process in the form of town hall meetings that the county funds so that the councilors can connect with people to hear what is going on.

Selvage said he would like to see the county invest wisely in areas such as infrastructure. He added the county should be careful with its reserves because the state might figure out a way to share less of the state revenue with the county if reserves become very high.

A question was asked regarding changing the culture on the council such as shortening meetings and being friendlier to the public.

Berting said the agenda for the meetings could be advertised a week in advance so during the public comment portion of council meetings, people would be aware of issues that are coming up. She added she agreed with Gill, town halls would be great to connect with the public as well as advertise future council meetings.

Rodgers said having served on council in the past as well as being council chair, it seemed to him that council meetings have become a roadblock for people to interact with their elected officials. For one thing, he said, councilors talk too much. So “to change the culture, it has to start with the councilors,” Rodgers said. He suggested that the chairperson enforce a limited amount of time for councilors to talk.

Regarding an issue with members of the LANL workforce choosing to live outside of Los Alamos, the candidates were asked how they would encourage LANL employees to live in the townsite.

Johnson said the real issue is affordable housing. He said his daughter worked at the laboratory as a summer student yet her salary and the cost of housing made it impossible for her to find a place to live.
Something needs to be done with affordable housing or pay scales, Johnson said.

The land the county has acquired from the Department of Energy (DOE) could allow the county to offer different types of residential properties, Hall said.

When asked if quality and longevity or up front costs are more important when looking at capital improvement projects, Gill said, “I’m into long, substantial, sustained quality of life for everyone in town.”

Things do need to be built for the long haul, Rodgers said structures should not have to be torn down because they become inadequate just a few years after being built.

Another question dealt with how the county should be more business friendly.

Hall said the culture of the townsite needs to be examined; he also stressed the importance of the Trinity site and not turning “every fragment of commercial space” over to the laboratory.

Selvage said, “I think that is a big problem (in Los Alamos); it is not business friendly.” He believed that elements of the initiative used in Albuquerque called “thrive!ABQ” could be incorporated locally. For instance, Selvage said the slogan “shop locally,” should be followed not only by residents but also by the county. He added the permit process for businesses could be modified to include a liaison to help walk businesses through the permit process.

Regarding a question on how to improve the quality of life in Los Alamos, Berting said the Municipal Building and the Trinity Site as well as “developing down town as an integrated entity from one end to the other,” are key to quality of life in Los Alamos.

The public also needs to be involved. If people are given information about these projects early, she said, it builds up more enthusiasm.

If the Trinity Site doesn’t work, Johnson said, then the county does not have the ability to improve its economy. He called the site a litmus test; if it succeeds then other options are available to the county. Johnson added he would like to see Los Alamos become a tourist destination — not just a place for people to spend the day but several days. “All that hinges, in my mind, on the Trinity Site’s success,” he said.

Addressing affordable housing, Hall said several things rather than a single thing needs to be done. Again, he pointed to the land the county received from DOE as an avenue to take. He said the county now has more than 100 acres of land that can be used for housing.

Hall said there needs to be a variety of housing types to fit everyone’s needs. “Picking one strand, one thing to do isn’t going to make a difference,” he said. He also recommended the county look to local housing experts for its housing needs rather than turning to an out-of-town developer. “Let’s give local people an opportunity here,” Hall said.

There is an affordable housing program in place at the county, Gill said. She believed this existing plan should continue to be developed.

When asked how the county could diversify its economy, Johnson again said the county could become a tourist destination with certain projects in the works such as the Manhattan Historic Park.

Johnson added he thinks turning UNM-LA into a four-year institution would be another great way to bring more students, more residents and more money into the county.

Rodgers said the county has tried to bring in high-tech business with not-so-stellar results. There are a lot of other reasons to live in Los Alamos besides the laboratory, he said. Therefore the county should “point out all the strengths that we as a community have,” he said.

Although they believe the county’s economy should be diverse, the candidates also explained how the county should support the laboratory.

Berting said council should meet with LANL so both sides are aware of what is going on with each entity. She added the county should improve on its existing amenities and add to its economic base so people can find jobs that are not associated with the lab.

While Selvage said he believes a healthy lab helps Los Alamos, ultimately, the lab does not care about the county’s economy.

What would be beneficial, he said, is if the county reverses its lack of retail, restaurants and nightlife. This would not only help the county but also help the lab retain employees.

Grammar

"largest amount of people?"

If that was a quote, then insert (sic) throughout that sentence. If it is the columnist's wording, then you need to email her columns to me for editing before they're unleashed upon the public.