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The Los Alamos County council adopted a budget for FY2014 on Wednesday, adding $378,565 to the $185.9 million proposed by staff.
The vote came after more than four hours of debate and a series of votes on individual “parking lot” items. As council worked to reach consensus, several motions, friendly amendments and substitute motions were struck down, but the final vote on every item was unanimous.
County Administrator Harry Burgess led the discussion, addressing many of the issues raised in the first two budget hearing sessions.
Cutbacks to programs such as Senior Center services and Progress through Partnering were areas of concern.
“This budget has not just been an internal process. It has also included discussion with our various partner agencies in order to come up with the various numbers that you have before you,” Burgess said. “Sometimes those discussions were with one person in that agency and we’ve been hearing from others in that agency. I’m afraid we’ve failed in communication with all members of those parties.
“I know you’ve heard various comments about a desire for more money, but in many instances this is a negotiated middle ground, and we really appreciate the efforts of those other agencies to realize that we weren’t going to achieve our goals without their assistance as well.
The only reduction council made to the proposed budget was $15,000 in council’s budget for contractual services. Council felt it could achieve some savings since some items covered by that, such as the public defender’s services and the council contingency fund, have historically used considerably less than the allotted amount.
The largest increase was a transfer of $300,000 from the general fund to the healthcare assistance program (the indigent fund).
The main funding source for the indigent healthcare is gross receipts tax (GRT). The current fund is $394,000 less than projected, a 19 percent decrease.
“The claims activity, the participation in this program, is just much faster than we could have projected. At the same time, our revenues are dropping,” said Assistant County Administrator Steven Lynne. “We’re projecting close to zero balance by the end of the year, and we could even be negative depending on how claims ramp up. So it’s a pretty significant severe situation.”
Half of the one eighth percent GRT assessed by the county for healthcare services goes to State-supported Medicaid, approximately $950,000 in FY2013.
Another $400,000 covers the county’s share of the Sole Community Provider fund, which covers hospital services for those unable to pay. That fund is administered by the state and is leveraged nearly three-to-one with federal funds.
Individual claims for the current year are projected in the $900,000 to $950,000 range, up from $550,000 last year. Without additional funds to augment GRT revenues, approximately $200,000 would be available for those claims, which would basically cover ambulance services.
There are 369 active clients in the healthcare assistant program, and the county has contracts with 69 providers.
When GRT was high and utilization much lower, council voted to increase individual services, adding dental, vision, preventative care, home health care, senior care facilities and health care.
Staff is recommending reducing the scope of services in order to cover more people. Council supported that recommendation, and the vote to transfer money from the general fund included a provision that dental, vision and senior care facilities would no longer be covered.
Council also wants to assure coverage for basic healthcare other than emergency services.
State law allows the county to assess an additional 1/16 GRT for the State-supported Medicaid. Approximately half the New Mexico counties utilize this. The State Healthcare Assistance Act also provides for a mill levy. Those sources of funding as well as additional adjustments to services will be discussed during the April 30 council meeting.
Council also voted to restore $93,000 for community services.
Community Services Director Charlie Kalogeros-Chattan alleviated many of council’s fears about reduced funding, especially in the area of behavioral health and prevention, by explaining how that money was being spent. Kalogeros-Chattan charted how funds that appeared to have been cut had actually been reallocated to more effective activities.
Funding for those services has actually been increased. A $150,000 placeholder for services is included in the FY2014 budget. The new social services manager Kim Gabaldon is currently assessing how best to utilize those funds.
Some councilors advocated for increasing that placeholder in light of increasing community need, but instead directed Gabaldon to request a budget adjustment if she deemed more services were necessary.
Council took out proposed reductions to Senior Center services, Youth Activity Center operations and the summer concert series. They also voted to fund Bear Camp at the current level to maintain a seven-to-one staffing ratio.
Councilor Kristen Henderson also advocated for reducing cuts to Cooperative Extension Services by $40,000. The cuts would have reduced the home economics position to either a half time or quarter time position (the actual reduction was unclear).
The additional money should allow that position the be retained at three-quarter time, along with a full time horticulturist, although New Mexico State University — which runs the program — makes the final determination of how funds are allocated.
“I understand that we don’t actually control what they do with the money, but the perception is that we’re cutting money and keeping the person who does the gardening, which is mostly an adult activity, and the person who does the kid’s stuff is the one being cut,” Henderson said.
There were motions to reject all proposed cutbacks to community services or to add more than $93,000, but consensus was reached after further explanation by Kalogeros-Chattan and several failed motions.
One area of concern was reduced spending for the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and the Teen Center. Kalogeros-Chattan explained that the FY2014 budget for both is based on actual spending in recent years, with a small cushion built in.
“So even though it’s a reduction in the budget it’s not necessarily a reduction in services,” Kalogeros-Chattan said.
Kalogeros-Chattan also assured councilors that the need for increased activities by both organizations once the teen center moves to the community building is built into the budget.
Councilor Steve Girrens advocated for maintaining Progress through Partnering funding at $1 million instead of $825,000.
“We should stay on the offensive, where we’re leading and trying to bring another cooperative activity to the region,” Girrens said. “You’re always doing a proactive outreach.
Girrens himself made the motion to adopt the Progress through Partnering budget as is, since there is no program to replace the ineffective Española Basin Regional Issues Forum (EBRIF) that is being cut. Girrens was also assured by the fact that Burgess had sent a letter explaining the cutbacks to all the regional partners, and only two responses (both supportive) had been returned.
Council also voted to not to supplement the budget for the visitor centers or promoting the county, both funded by the Lodgers’ Tax. That fund has also seen significant reductions, but staff argued that current funding is sufficient to maintain full visitor center hours and that the economic development fund has sufficient reserves to handle promotional activities.
Council also decided not to try to reinstate Ski Hill service in the transit budget or to implement weekend service from White Rock, although both may be reevaluated in the future.