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The Los Alamos County council wrapped up three nights of budget hearings by approving a $191,378,802 budget for FY2015 by a 5−2 vote Monday. Chair Geoff Rodgers and Councilor David Izraelevitz voted against the budget.
The vote came after a two-hour barrage of friendly amendments and substitute motions, as council tossed various options back and forth.
The debate centered on two points of contention. The first was whether a 15-percent pay increase for elected officials — effective Jan. 1, 2015, for newly appointed positions−should include councilors. The second was whether a re-implementation of $1.5 million in property taxes (removed in FY 2011) should occur in FY2016 or FY2017.
Councilor Steve Girrens made a friendly amendment to include councilors in the 15-percent salary increase approved by the state legislature this year, which was accepted.
The amendment was temporarily removed after Rodgers objected.
“I was going to vote for this budget right up to the point that council was included in the raises,” Rodgers said, citing a commitment he made while running for office not to vote for salary increases for council. “I said, you don’t do this job for the money. It’s public service. So for that one item, I’m going to have to vote against this budget.”
The amendment was reinstated at Councilor Rick Reiss’ request after Vice Chair Kristin Henderson pointed out that the amount might be insignificant to those who were retired or working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but that for others such as herself, who are self-employed, the commitments of the office can affect their income.
“I think we need to look at the big picture of who we want running in the future. It’s nice to have a wider representation on council,” Henderson said.
Councilor David Izraelevitz, who voted against the budget for other reasons, also supported the 15-percent increase for councilors.
“We have self-employed or people who are raising a family who we may want to have represented on council, to whom that little bit of salary that they would be making would be non-trivial,” Izraelevitz said.
“At my point, with how I’m overpaid at the laboratory, the difference is insignificant, but I wouldn’t presume that only people to whom $1,000 is insignificant should be encouraged to be on council.”
The 15-percent increase for elected officials will have to be approved by ordinance before it is implemented.
Girrens also made the friendly amendment to delay re-implementation of the property tax until FY2017. Delaying the re-implementation is projected to create a budget deficit in FY2016.
Henderson, who made the original motion, rejected the amendment.
“We do have these additional expenses, and part of being fiscally responsible is also making sure we’re able to meet our obligations,” Henderson said. “We’re fortunate that we have the lowest tax rates in the nation for our income level — by half, as I understand it. I think most of us like good services and things like the nature center.”
Girrens then made a substitute motion that included the delay.
“I just have this feeling that we still have not addressed the expansive growth that occurred when the GRT (Gross Receipts Tax) was high,” Girrens said. “I’m impressed these last two years that we can find moneys to be more frugal with and not impact services. I still think there is probably room to work in that arena. I don’t believe the massive appetite to grow and expand is checked yet.”
Girrens also noted that a potential $4,000 transfer to the Capital Improvements Projects budget due to better than expected earnings on investment income in the Capital Projects Permanent Fund in FY2014, would offset the deficit. He also believes council can “tighten their belts” on the two CIP projects scheduled for implementation in FY2016, the golf course and ice rink improvements.
Izraelevitz opposed the delay.
“The important issue is whether we think that, given the current projections, the tax is needed or not,” Izraelevitz said. “So, frankly, if we really want to change budget guidance, it shouldn’t be, here’s $1.5 million that you can’t use one time, it should be a long-term restructuring of our income and expenses.”
Henderson asked staff how the increased GRT of recent years had been utilized, and how much of that “fattened” the budget.
“Our budgets certainly did increase as that additional GRT income was there, but our primary focus was on infrastructure replacements and capital improvements. But there were certainly some increased operating expenses as well,” said Deputy County Administrator/Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne.
Lynne noted that the majority of the increased GRT was committed to capital improvement projects. Increases in operational budgets were largely due to expanding the jail, creating a consolidated public safety dispatch and taking over and expanding the transit system.
A significant portion of those revenues were also devoted to Progress through Partnering, which was initiated due to the increased GRT. Those programs have been scaled back as GRT dropped.
Girrens’ substitute motion passed.
Three additional amendments suggested by County Administrator Harry Burgess, were also included in the final version.
The first amendment changed funding for the county administrator’s office and the Office of Management and Budget, to reflect that two payroll employees were being transferred from the administrator’s office to OMB. The change does not increase or decrease the budget.
The other two changes were based on council input at work sessions.
The first transfers $250,000 to the economic development fund to construct up to 10 nodes of access to the REDI Net infrastructure, in order to provide high speed broadband for local businesses.
“We have people in White Rock and on the Hill who are anxious for the use of REDI Net and its extremely fast speeds,” Reiss said. “So I think it’s important that we put these moneys in there so we can implement it in places where it’s particularly easy so we can start using this asset that we spent a great amount of money implementing.”
The other amendment, also suggested during a work session, was for an additional one-percent across the board salary increase for county employees (the proposed budget included a two-percent increase).
Burgess noted that the county has decreased the number of full time employees by 20 and demanded more of the remaining employees. The increase also moves the county closer to a goal set in 2012 to increase salaries by eight-percent to meet a targeted rate of 15-percent above neighboring counties.
The additional increase adds $351,000 to the overall budget, with $221,000 of that coming from the general fund.
Two additional amendments do not affect the FY2015 budget.
One, proposed by councilor Pete Sheehey, directs staff to prepare legislation to increase the “New Mexico additional low-income property tax rebate for Los Alamos or Santa Fe Counties” and to raise the income eligibility level.
Sheehey suggested an increase from a $350 maximum rebate to $500, and a possible rebate of $200 for those making between $24,000 (the current eligibility cutoff) and $50,000. The county reimburses the state for those credits, so staff will have to study the impacts of the proposal.
A final amendment directs staff to begin drafting legislation to increase the county clerk’s salary from a half time to a full time position.
The final version of the budget meets council’s goal of maintaining a flat budget for FY2015.