Council passes capital budget

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By Marganne Glasser

Los Alamos County Council has adopted the proposed Long Range Financial Plan for capital improvements with the proviso of reviewing the plan every six months. Councilors have also shaved $150,000 from the county administrator’s budget that had been earmarked for community branding.

During a public hearing Monday night, Ron Wilkins, chair of the Fuller Lodge Advisory Board, notified the council of the goal of jointly creating a regional historical center with the Historical Preservation Board. The boards are in the process of identifying a site for a facility and creating an advisory board.

County Administrator Max Baker gave a retrospective of county government growth over the past 10 years. He elaborated on the development of the capacity to handle large scale projects and called the county government the best in the state, including an expanded fire department and a consolidated 911 dispatch system.

The largest single increase in the county budget is from 546 full-time equivalents (FTE) 10 years ago to the current 664. The county has increased its share of contributions to employee benefits from 60 percent to 80 percent, which has made county salaries more market-competitive.

Council Chair Jim Hall noted that the county acted as a responsible employer by moving temporary and casual labor roles into permanent ones.

Councilor Ken Wilder asked if the county budget of $180,768,215 was typical for a county of this size. Baker responded that although Los Alamos County’s expense per capita is relatively high, its government structure is unusual. It is a combined city and county, for example; the fire department is relatively large because of the needs of Los Alamos National Laboratory; and the county manages the utilities.

Councilor Jim West, participating by telephone, said the local county government has about 300 more FTE than Socorro’s. But considering the 150 or so employees each for the fire department and utilities, that makes them about the same size, he said.

In reply to a query by Councilor Nona Bowman’s, Baker said the county is still finalizing a contract with LANL and Los Alamos National Security for an additional 22 FTE firefighters

Baker said the county is working to maintain and improve its infrastructure while creating a climate for good intergovernmental relations. He said he looks forward to a “very aggressive Capital Improvements Program,” yet has budgeted conservatively with concern for the stability of a one-source revenue base. He said the county “will balance infrastructure improvement with budget constraints and control the growth of its operating expenses.”

County Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne gave an update on county performance measures, county revenues, expenditures and the long-range financial plan. He said performance measures begun in 2007 would prove increasingly useful for identifying trends and needed system adjustments.

Lynne said the county had developed better procedures for the budgeting process in response to past escalation of costs in project budgets. This included two phases of project implementation: the study and conceptual design phase, and the design and construction phase. He said better initial studies could lead to better cost predictions.

For Fiscal Year 2009 revenues are projected to be $174,865,685 with expenses at $180,768,215. In fiscal year 2010, projected revenues are $188,720,491 and expenses are expected to be $188,113,713.

Lynne explained that the anticipated decrease in county revenues from $179,238,902 in fiscal year 2008 was because of a 10-percent projected decrease in investment income. Additionally, there was a 12-percent decrease in debt proceeds and an 11-percent decrease in the Capital Improvement Program (CIP), which were not fully offset by other revenue increases.

Lynne said county salaries will increase by 3 percent and county costs for medical, dental and vision benefits will increase by 12 percent. He accounted for the decrease in county fund balances of $52,044,153 from fiscal 2007-2009 as largely caused by a decrease in administrative funds from the Cerro Grande Fire Fund and debt service fund. He also noted that CIP projects are about $54 million lower in fiscal 2009.

Lynne said there will be a financial cushion of up to $34 million of unprogrammed funds by 2010, because of conservative assumptions that were applied and despite large variables in projected income beyond the county’s control.

“What if your assumptions don’t hold true?” Councilor Robert Gibson asked, while expressing concern for destabilizing influences on the projections.

Lynne replied that the county plans to structure its debt for greater flexibility and possible early payoff, and can accumulate additional debt-service revenues.

The council passed the CIP on a 6-to-1 vote, with Gibson voting against the measure.

Gibson said the schools should be the first priority and he did not see adequate attention to their needs, nor sufficient budget flexibility as written.

Chairman Jim Hall noted that the school board coordinating committee was in the planning stages of identifying capital improvement needs. He said the schools were built in the ’40s and ’50s and had not seen major upgrades since.

The council (with West no longer present) passed 6-to-0 the following operating budgets: County Council, $370,322; Municipal Court, $470,803; County Assessor, $688,020; County Clerk, $503,362; County Sherriff, $71,095; County Attorney, $760.825; and County Administrator $3,812,265 (reduced by $150,000 from the proposed amount).

Budget hearings continue tonight, Thursday and April 30. The budget will be finalized by the council on May 13. The first half-hour of each meeting is open to public input.

The council added an item to Thursday’s agenda for advancing to Phase II with the Design Group for a conceptual design for the Municipal Building at the Ashley Pond Site.