County fiscal crisis is an opportunity

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By Robert Gibson

“Never waste a good crisis” goes the saying. Sadly, it often takes a crisis to force overdue actions. The county budget shortfall is such an opportunity.

The county government’s fiscal challenge is real. The revenue bubble it has enjoyed the six years since LANL started paying gross receipts taxes is deflating. Neither the lab’s mission nor its political support in Washington are as strong as they were for decades. The lab is not going away, but its size and strength are declining.

Our failure to focus on diversifying our economic base means we are not replacing the meaningful jobs being lost at the lab or the income they produce — to the community and the county government.

So far, the county government’s reaction to the “sudden” (actually, long-foreseeable and avoidable) crisis has been predictable. Council, trying to avoid hard decisions, hopes things will be better next year. Staff is understandably trying to avoid losing jobs and changes in business practices.

Most “solutions” proposed are also predictable and generally more appropriate for a short term crunch than a long-term sea change, e.g., draw down reserves, reduce travel, postpone capital improvement and maintenance projects, and borrow more.

Of course, the groundwork is being laid to further increase taxes. It is “suggested” higher taxes are necessary to avoid cuts in services and postponement of popular capital (CIP) projects. There are alternatives.

The Budget Guidance adopted by Council January 29 recognizes the potential opportunity in “increasing operating efficiencies.” Those words got little attention; they are the most important in the document.

The county government tends to equate levels of public services with their cost, ergo reduced funding means reduced services. Not necessarily. Organizations not pressured to manage costs tend to become less efficient with time. Our county government is no exception. Some internal processes are archaic and cumbersome. Many jobs service only the organization itself, not the public. Not all are necessary. It has many very good employees, but has also accumulated some who don’t pull their weight.

For-profit businesses are forced by competition to stay lean and cost-effective. Many governments have also been forced that direction by recent economic realities. Our county government has never been pressured. It is past time.

While staff proposes to trim popular and visible services (e.g., reducing library hours), it is well past time both council and staff learn the word “prioritization” (as Councilor Sheehey mentions frequently). Like most politicians, councilors hate to say “no.” (That’s fundamentally why governments grow.) With too much money sloshing around county coffers, they have been able to get away with approving almost everything. Low-value or obsolete services should be reduced to protect those that provide significant benefit.

In the name of “infrastructure replacement,” the county government certainly thought lavish capital projects for itself were very important in the past half dozen years as it built the White Rock Fire Station, Pajarito Cliffs, Justice Center, and the nearly completed Municipal Monstrosity downtown. All these were needed. All were overdone, costing tens of millions in excessive construction costs and hundreds of thousands annually in unnecessary new maintenance, insurance, utility and other operations costs.

Now we are suddenly running out of money when smaller projects to serve citizens directly are proposed. The government is already hinting that supporters of these new CIP projects should support higher taxes and/or more borrowing — which means higher future taxes.

Capital projects should be prioritized beside, not subordinate to, routine operations for available resources. Critically considered and competently executed capital investment is just as important as everyday services.

Before cutting worthy services or facilities or reaching deeper into our pockets, the county government should streamline its bureaucracy, learn to prioritize, and recognize that some (not all) capital projects add real value to the community — unlike underutilized space in very expensive government buildings.