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A decision to defer as much as $12.5 million in capital improvement project spending for up to four years in order to ease the current budget crunch promised to test the Los Alamos County Council to its limits at Tuesday’s session, when it was set to determine which projects would be deferred.
A proposal from supporters of golf course improvements eased council’s task considerably. Councilor Frances Berting reported that each councilor had been contacted with an offer to defer improvements to the course for three years, provided the four-year phase-in originally approved was reduced to two years.
The council took the golf course supporters up on their proposal, unanimously approving the motion that also deferred ice rink improvements with the exception of upgrades to the parking area.
County administrator Harry Burgess said the motion approved by council should assure a balanced budget for FY2014, barring major setbacks such as sequestration of the federal budget. However, there is a significant chance council will need to have another discussion about deferring CIP projects during FY2015 budget planning.
The golf course, meanwhile, was one of the more expensive CIP projects, with a budget of $11,359,224. Burgess estimated deferring the project will allow approximately $8.5 million to be transferred to the general fund for the three-year deferment.
Supporters estimated that condensing the phase-in from four years to two will generate an additional $1.4 million in savings, but Burgess said that figure could be reduced by variables such as increased construction costs due to the delayed start.
Berting’s motion to adopt the golf course proposal was only the start of a lengthy debate, since Burgess urged council to defer at least $10 million for up to four years.
“I don’t know that this goes far enough. Quite honestly, there are so many moving parts in this that what I want to avoid is having another meeting like this after Congress does its thing or the lab gets more budget cuts,” Council Chair Geoff Rodgers said. “So while I appreciate the golf course supporters’ willingness to put their project on hold, I don’t think the council has gone far enough. This has essentially bought us one year, but I don’t think it goes far enough.”
Rodgers made a friendly amendment to defer funding for the teen center and the Canyon Rim Trail.
Berting was unwilling to defer the teen center, after hearing reports of overcrowding at the temporary teen center. Both teen center Director Michelangelo Lobato and Los Alamos Juvenile Justice Advisory Board Coordinator Ellen Ben-Naim noted that additional programming for teens is on hold due to lack of space.
Berting amended her motion to also defer the extension of the Canyon Rim Trail and improvements to the ice rink.
Councilor Pete Sheehey argued against delaying expansion of the ice rink parking lot due to safety concerns. The parking accounts for only $240,000 of the $1,522,000 project.
Councilor David Izraelevitz was against delaying the Canyon Rim Trail, since that would leave a gap between the existing trail and an extension Smith’s/Kroger will build on the Trinity Site development. Former councilor Mike Wismer presented arguments in support of extending the trail to the downtown area, noting that the trail is heavily used by a variety of citizens, including many elderly residents.
Councilor Kristin Henderson was concerned that deferred projects might face future cuts. Deputy County Administrator/Chief Financial Officer Steve Lynne admitted that was a possibility but was cautiously optimistic.
“Being in the capital plan is one of the places you want to be. This is a project that’s been through the study phase, the council has approved it in our capital plan,” Lynne said. “So it’s not as certain as those that are occurring all in one year and funded all in one year, but they’re in the capital plan. The change suggested in the motion keeps it in the plan, just a different start time and actually a shorter budget funding cycle, two years instead of four years. It does require commitment and follow through by future councils.”
Golf course supporter Bruce Norman addressed that uncertainty as well.
“I would just ask everyone that’s in this room, those sitting on the council, the staff, and — very importantly — the supporters of the other projects here, please don’t forget us three years from now if budgets are tight or focus is lost,” Norman said.
Several council members did their best to alleviate those fears.
“I believe all of these projects are valuable. They’ve all been vetted. It is through lots of citizen input, lots of work. Some of these projects have been going on for six or seven years in their planning. I am committed, as long as I am sitting in this chair, that all of these projects will get done,” Councilor Steve Girrens said.
“What gives me hope is how civil this conversation has been,” Rodgers said. “There are competing interests here, there’s a lot of emotion here, but this community never ceases to amaze me by how civil these conversations are.”