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FY-2010 Budget Hearings kick off with gusto

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By Carol A. Clark

Day one of the county's budget hearings moved along at a mostly vigorous clip Monday evening in council chambers and spirits remained high.

“It’s been mentioned that the county has healthy fund balances and we do,” Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne said. “We’ll start at about $122 million and end at about $110 million.”

The main weakness the county has is its lack of diversity, he explained adding, “Our greatest risk is one of our biggest assets because it pushes us towards a certain conservatism.”

Lynne praised each department for sticking to no more than a 3 percent budget increase.

County Attorney Mary McInerny was commended for actually lowering her budget from last year.

“Mary gets a gold star – her budget went down 5 percent,” Lynne said.

Council tentatively approved 7-0 budgets for the county attorney, courts, assessor’s office, sheriff, county clerk and county council, all subject to a possible adjustment to the county-wide salary pool.

Councilor Robert Gibson questioned whether the proposed 3 percent salary increase for county employees was in line with industry standards in view of the economic downturn. He told staff he wanted to support the increase but needed concrete data to convince him it was the right thing to do at this time.

Because of the rise in the cost of living and other factors, County Administrator Max Baker said the increase simply keeps employees whole and doesn’t really add anything.

The issue was tabled to Thursday when staff will return to present clarifying data.

Council’s tentative approval throughout the budget hearing process is subject to change as it hasn’t heard all the presentations and they may also make amendments at any time during the process.

“During the budget hearings, really nothing is completely final,” Lynne said.

The county administrator’s budget required further explanation and was carried over to one of three more hearings, including 7 p.m. today, Thursday and April 28, all in council chambers.

Property taxes were a big issue at the hearing.

Councilor Sharon Stover mentioned that property taxes have not been raised in Los Alamos County since 1992.

Resident George Chandler showed photos of eight area roadways with major deterioration and asked council not to cut taxes in its 2010 budget.

“We need to be proud of our town and keep it up and keep the infrastructure up,” Chandler said.

Gibson said that projections five years out indicate that even with tax cuts the county could maintain its current level of services.

“It’s certainly sexy and eloquent to say we’re going to cut taxes but you’ve got to look deeper here,” Council Vice Chair Michael Wismer said.

Both Lynne and Baker expressed concern about the impact lowering taxes could have on the high level of services the county provides its residents.

Concern also was expressed about lowering taxes now and the difficulty to raise them later.

After much discussion, council voted 5-2 to reject reducing homeowner taxes by 5.5 mills, with councilors Gibson and Vincent Chiravalle voting for the measure.

The volatile laboratory budget helps keep the county from relaxing about the fact that it has $35 million in reserves.

Current GRT levels may not be maintained, Baker said.

The county projected GRT revenue for 2009 at $48 million with the new projection closer to $56 million, Lynne said. Projections show $57 million for 2010.

“We’re projecting GRT revenues to decline significantly over the next couple of years back down to about $51 million,” Lynne said.

Also, the county has experienced a 25 percent decline in its investment income due in part because of the market decline and because the market is not expected to recover over the next couple of years, Lynne said.

An enormous amount of work went into creating the 2010 budget proposal presented by county staff.

Total revenues and other sources in FY 2010 are projected to be $181.7 million. This compares to $176.5 million in the FY 2009 adopted budget.

Total expenditures in the FY 2010 proposed budget are $193.2 million. This compares to $184.3 million in the FY 2009 adopted budget.

“As has been the case for several years, staff has used the Community Vision Statement and council’s adopted Goals and Objectives as the overarching guidance in developing this proposed budget,” Baker said. “That vision and the goals and objectives continue to outline a bold means of revitalizing our community and taking it to a bright and exciting future.”

Budget hearings continue today at 7 p.m. in council chambers and are scheduled to focus on the county’s Capital Improvement Program.

This is an open hearing of which the first 30 minutes are dedicated to public comment.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 490-0938 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.