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Council talks policy

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By Katy Korkos

Policy discussions topped the council agenda on Tuesday, with topics ranging from the county’s capital improvement program and long-range financial plan, to an official county stand on the Department of Energy’s plan to transform the nuclear complex, including the production of pits at Los Alamos.Council decided in a 6-to-0 vote to send a letter to the document manager for the DOE, Theodore A. Wyka. The letter comments specifically on the Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement issued by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the DOE in December.It states that council endorses the preferred alternative for Los Alamos National Laboratory as described in the SPEIS, Sec. S 3.17A.“Los Alamos County hereby expresses its strong support for LANL, whose most significant contributions to the nation lie not in the past but in the future,” the letter continues.Councilors wanted to have the letter in place with the DOE before a series of five public meetings begins next week. The public comment period on the SPEIS ends on April 10.Of five public meetings during the week of Mar. 10 through 14, two are planned for Los Alamos: from 6-10 p.m. Wednesday, March 12, and from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. March 13. Both meetings will be held at the Hilltop House Hotel.Councilors also endorsed adding a paragraph to the comment letter that supports broadening the scope of the work done at LANL to include more super computing efforts, and enhancement of programs in energy, material, geosciences, bioscience and the environment.“In general, we would all agree that manufacturing pits is not the way we want to go. There are some people who want to do away with LANL altogether, which puts us in the uncomfortable position of having to prefer an alternative we really don’t prefer,” Councilor Fran Berting said.Former County Councilor George Chandler, representing the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control and Nuclear Weapons, said, “One of our positions is that we should be reducing the number of weapons in our stockpile down to 200-300.  Regarding a new pit production facility, we believe it has great consequences for the non-proliferation treaty and how we’re viewed worldwide.”Speaking on his own behalf, Chandler said to “make them clean this place up. They have beggared the cleanup program here for years. And make them keep the new facilities clean.”

Long-range financial plan

The county’s long-range financial plan and capital improvement program have been the topic for discussion by councilors at several meetings in the last few months, in preparation for budget hearings on the 2009-2010 biennial budget. The hearings will be held April 21-30.Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne has presented several revenue and spending projections for council to consider. “Some additional guidance tonight would be helpful to us as we hone in on the budget,” said County Administrator Max Baker. “The staff continues to work on the CIP process, and we’ll roll that out with the CIP program.”Lynne presented additional projections to council  showing the impact of decreasing property tax by 5.5 mills, in order that the schools might increase their portion of the tax by the same amount to have a neutral impact on taxpayers.Councilors Robert Gibson and Jim Hall both mentioned at previous meetings that the recent increases in gross receipts tax revenues benefit the county without benefiting the schools, which have the same problems with aging infrastructure that the county has. The schools’ only source of capital for improvements is through school bonds, tied to property taxes.“Two new graphs show the impact of decreasing property tax by 5.5 mills,” Lynne said. “In  2010, that would amount to approximately $3.3 million, and this shows a cumulative loss of $62 million over the whole period.”A motion by Gibson to include a reduction of the portion of property tax that comes to the county of 5.5 mills; to put all capital improvement projects other than Airport Basin, the Judicial Police Jail Complex and the Diamond Drive Project on hold until a new process for capital improvements can be instituted by the county; and to suspend making any appropriations through 2010 failed in a 2-to-4 vote, with only councilors Hall and Gibson voting in favor of the motion.Hall then asked Baker and Lynne whether they had gotten sufficient direction from council to proceed with the budget process.“When we have a goal to diversify the economy and we’re contracting the economy, making us even more reliant on GRT – that feels backward to me,” Baker said.“I agree with (Baker’s) comments,” Lynne said. “The motion would preclude the Municipal Building and leave nothing for wideband or the White Rock plan. I have a fairly good sense of what you’d like to see, enough to proceed with the budget.”Councilor Michael Wheeler suggested council form a committee to liaison with the school board for the purpose of discussing the property tax issue. “I concur with (Baker) and (Lynne),”  Wheeler said. “It’s premature to do anything with property tax at this time.”The county council’s next meeting is scheduled for March 18. The agenda has not been finalized, but will likely include a progress report on the White Rock Master Plan and economic development strategy, according to the county “tickler,” which previews upcoming agendas.