County cautious about accepting stimulus money

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By Carol A. Clark

While U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is urging New Mexico police departments to apply for Department of Justice grants to help hire new officers, Los Alamos County is weighing all sides of the government’s various stimulus offers.

County Administrator Max Baker said Thursday county staff continues to monitor a growing list of potential infrastructure improvements and programs that span a wide variety of needs throughout the county.

“We’re considering options under the stimulus package which might be a good source to supplement existing capital projects,” Baker said, adding that the county’s focus would be to fund projects that have already been identified in the upcoming FY 10 budget or the county’s long-range financial plan. “We should not let this change our priorities or add services that we cannot support in the future.”

Information about the stimulus package and how local governments may apply for consideration is a “work in progress,” Baker said.

“We are just now beginning to hear more details about a multitude of opportunities and programs,” he said, “but we’ll be carefully reviewing the requirements of any grants that might use stimulus package funding. We want to ensure that we continue to be financially prudent in applying dollars to projects that were already identified as part of our Capital Improvement Projects process this spring, or that qualify as ‘shovel ready.’”

The list of projects being assembled by the county as possible candidates for stimulus package funding includes categories such as utilities, transportation, facilities and community conservation, Baker said.

Some projects, such as the Diamond Drive Phase 3 project that will soon be under construction, are great projects where the community can benefit from stimulus monies.

Department of Transportation stimulus money to be available will save as much as $2 million in local taxpayer dollars that had been estimated to pay for this roadway project, he said.

“Certainly this has benefits to the county, since those dollars can now be re-programmed for other needed capital projects,” he said.

Baker also pointed out that stimulus package dollars are not necessarily “free.”

Although the amount of funds available to local governments such as Los Alamos might seem attractive amid federal government promises to fund jobs and create new revenues from taxes and new construction, there are often times commitments that stretch beyond the initial construction costs, he said, adding that other factors must be considered, such as weighing the long-term benefits and costs to the county in future years for every new project or service that is created.

“For example, even though we could perhaps apply and receive funds to build a new building, does that make the most sense for us financially five years from now – when stimulus money has been spent and we need to fund on-going operations and maintenance costs?,” Baker asked. “Would we then be required to add more staffing for facilities’ support or repairs?”

Baker also cautioned against the urge to apply for stimulus funds “simply because they’re available.”

Dollars aren’t limited only to construction projects. Stimulus money has also been tied to grants for augmenting staffing in municipalities, Baker said. 

News this week that the government was willing to issue grants to fund additional police officers is just one example. However, both Baker and Police Chief Wayne Torpy said such opportunities should be closely scrutinized.

“We should base our decisions for hiring police officers on our evaluation of our police programs and the needs of our community,” Torpy said.

He commented that one of the grants available would fund police officer salaries for three years, but then requires the county to absorb salary costs beginning in the fourth year, with no option to return staffing to previous “pre-stimulus” levels.

Baker agreed with Torpy’s assessment.

“We need to be cautious about using grants today to fund projects or services which might be thought of as luxuries in difficult times. It limits our future decision-making ability,” he said “Having that kind of limitation is never good in a volatile economic scenario.

The county already has a financial policy in place that typically requires most grant applications to be forwarded to the County Council for consideration before any department can apply.

The policy exists because the county has experienced past situations where the time and staffing needed for accountability tracking, metrics, reporting and grants administration have proven to be more costly than the actual dollars received from the grant.

Also, most grants require matching county funds that may or may not be in the current budget.

While the county may need to reconsider this process of council approval in order to take advantage of short turnaround times to submit grant applications, Baker said he’ll still be monitoring these kinds of requests from his staff with careful review and consideration in the coming months.

“We will continue to evaluate each grant offered under the stimulus package and weigh the benefits and drawbacks against our priorities and goals,” he said. “After that, we’ll make decisions that we think are best for our current situation, align with our present financial policies or budgets and have the least impact on future operations.”

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at