County, schools reach draft agreement

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By Katy Korkos

The schools need a reliable revenue stream and new facilities to replace the dark and dingy Quonset huts located along Trinity Drive. The county needs land along Trinity for economic development in the heart of town, to create diversity in the economy and to reduce reliance on the one big employer in the county. The people of Los Alamos need choice in where they shop and more entertainment options to improve the quality of life.Los Alamos County and school board representatives jointly announced that they believe they have reached an agreement for Los Alamos Public Schools to lease their facilities from the county at the Airport Basin site. Assistant County Administrator Tony Mortillaro, who has been negotiating for several months on behalf of the county, and school board member Joan Ahlers, who has negotiated on behalf of Los Alamos Public Schools, held a press conference Thursday to answer questions about the draft agreements.“We are optimistic at this point that we’ve found a solution that works for both the schools and the county,” Mortillaro said. “We have been partners with the schools for over two years now, so the negotiations were just an extension of that partnership.The schools and county signed a Joint Powers Agreement in 2005 that allowed them to undertake the whole complex project.Ahlers, who joined Superintendent Jim Anderson and schools’ attorneys to explore the lease option for the schools, said, “We were working on a common goal – to keep the idea for vacating the Trinity Site moving forward while keeping both parties whole. The school board has been supportive of the project, but we needed to find a better option that provided the schools with accelerated operating revenue, rather than paying the capital costs of new buildings.” The county and schools looked at the negotiations collectively, Mortillaro said, as a question of “how do we make this work for both the county and schools?” They kept refining the concepts until everyone agreed. Although details can’t be released just yet, County Public Information Officer Julie Habiger said the two parties have reached an agreement that is a win-win situation. “The county benefits because the schools will continue with plans to relocate most of their facilities currently located on the Trinity Site to the Airport Basin Site,” she said. “The schools benefit from a lease agreement because it will allow revenues from the Boyer Development to return to the school’s operating funds immediately.”

Draft AgreementsThe body of the draft agreements lays out a process in which the schools will lease facilities at Airport Basin from the county, but the county will also lease the S-1 and L-1 parcels from the schools. The cost of demolition on school property will be borne by the schools, and the schools should recoup that cost of approximately $3.2 million with lease revenues. After paying their lease to the county for facilities at Airport Basin, the school district should net nearly $500,000 per year. The documents show that the schools can expect to reap approximately $38 million over the 50-year term of their lease of the property along Trinity Drive. The district will transfer the 24.9 acre A-8A/B parcels to the county, and the county will convey the L-1 parcel to the district. The county will retain 2.4 acres of L-1, a parcel in the far southwestern corner of the property along the canyon.The broader purpose of all the conveyances is to leave the county with land available for development for housing or parks, uses that don’t provide an ongoing revenue stream, and to leave the schools with land, such as that along Trinity, that can leased for commercial development. Ahlers said that both parties wanted to see the site used “to its highest and best use.” She said having bus barns on the main commercial street in town was not the best use of the property.“Right now the county has about $700 million in assessed valuation, Mortillaro said. “This entire project will add about $200 million in assessed valuation, to bring our total close to one billion dollars.” Mortillaro said that the new property tax revenue from the Trinity Place development might bring nearly $40 million in new property tax revenue to the county over the 50-year period. “We’re not going to say it’s about jobs,” he said. “It’s more of a quality of life addition to the community.”

Public InvolvementThe agreements are still in draft form, and are substantially complete insofar as the county and schools are concerned, but the developer agreements and leases with the Boyer Company are still in negotiation. The Boyer agreements will be part of the ordinance when it is introduced.Mortillaro said that the ordinance presented to council would also include the agreements with the Boyer Company. “Ours will be the entire package,” Mortillaro said. “We hope to introduce the ordinance at the council’s November 27 meeting, which means the documents would be available to the public for review the next day. If the schedule stays on track, the public hearing would be held at the Dec. 18 council meeting.” Ahlers said the school board would also review the agreements at their work session in November, and give the public an opportunity to review the documents in December. “Our goal is to have these on at least two agendas,” Ahlers said. “Adoption of the ordinance will not be complete until additional steps have been completed,” Mortillaro said. “The ordinance becomes effective 45 days after its adoption date, and there is a 30-day period after council adoption during which a referendum petition can be filed.” The New Mexico State Board of Finance, which meets once a month, must then approve the agreements, either at its regular January meeting or in a special session. Habiger said that once the ordinance has cleared the state finance board, the county hopes to put the project out for bid in the spring of 2008, and to break ground on Airport Basin by June or July.Council Chair Jim West told Habinger, “I think this shows that anytime you get a group of people together who are all committed to the same vision – which is really less about the Airport Basin site facilities and more about the future of our community, our quality of life and our economy – you’re going to do whatever it takes to bring all the pieces together and resolve the issues.”Mortillaro said the council and school board have a “broader goal for the community. This project will bring shopping, provide replacements for aging facilities, provide operating revenue for the schools, and create property tax and gross receipts taxes for the county.”Ahlers added, “Not only will the schools get an ongoing revenue stream and new facilities without ongoing maintenance costs, but new development will also increase our bonding capacity. One huge benefit to the schools is that in our 25-year master plan for facilities, we don’t have to use bonding capacity to build a $12 million bus barn. That’s the same cost as building a new elementary school.”