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Max Baker keeps rolling with the punches

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By Katy Korkos

When Max Baker, Los Alamos county chief administrative officer, agreed to speak to the Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW) at the group’s November meeting, little did he know that just one day previous to Tuesday’s meeting, hundreds of layoffs at LANL would be announced, setting the tone for a very worried audience.“When you work for local government, you’ve got to be able to roll with the punches,” Baker said. “Things change every day.”The commander of the MOWW chapter, Lt. Col. Norm Wilson, introduced Baker to the group, whose meetings fall on Tuesdays, when Baker is usually unavailable because he attends county council meetings.Baker described his upbringing in southeastern Idaho, where his parents had a farm.“My father’s a potato farmer, and his major labor force was his four boys,” Baker said. “I learned a lot about putting in a hard day’s work.” He talked about his love of the mountains, and looking outside his mom’s kitchen window at the view of the Grand Tetons.What drew Baker and his wife Kathryn to Los Alamos in 1991 were the mountain environment and the good school system. All three of Baker’s children graduated from high school in Los Alamos. The educational opportunities beyond high school also made it possible for his wife to earn two master’s degrees since they have lived in Los Alamos.Baker has served as the county’s finance director, administrative services director, deputy county administrator, and as interim county administrator three different times before his present appointment as county administrator. He told the assembled group of veterans and their family members who attended Tuesday’s meeting at Aspen Ridge that he finally decided to accept the position of county administrator three years ago, after seeing the make-up of the current county council.He said that he was asked by a councilor what his vision for the community would be, and responded: “Everybody all over the world knows Los Alamos and what was accomplished here; everything we do is international news. “My vision is that the next generation will look back and say, ‘Right there in our history, our county council started positioning us to make something we’re proud of today.’”MOWW members took advantage of the small group setting at Tuesday’s meeting to engage in a debate, both with Baker and among themselves, on the future of the laboratory and the community as a whole. Deep concerns about the future of the town were evident in the questions from the group of about 20, which included many retired military personnel and Los Alamos’ representative, Jeannette Wallace.“When I look at the budget, it looks to me like it could be 750, 1,200 or maybe 1,500 people lose their jobs,” said Col. Gene Tucker, USAF ret. “I don’t think the council is recognizing the changing face of Los Alamos,” (referring to the county’s plans for economic development and to the potential loss of gross receipts tax revenue when lab budgets are tightened).”“I disagree with you in a couple of respects,” Baker said. “We do recognize that we are a real beneficiary of the taxing structure. Ninety-seven percent of our revenue is gross receipts taxes. Our fate is shared with the laboratory; we will succeed or fail as the laboratory succeeds or fails, but one of the things we also realize is that most of our infrastructure was built at the same time. Our basic infrastructure is falling apart, and it’s cheaper to actually replace it than to fix it. The laboratory cannot do things like directly lobby the congressional delegation, but we can. We’re in their offices at least four times a year,” Baker said. “It’s those face-to-face relationships that carry the ball.”“We’re losing Saint Pete,” Tucker said. “Some of those other politicians just give lip-service to the laboratories.”Baker agreed with Tucker, saying, “On all kinds of lists, we’re 48th, 49th or 50th, and population is one of those, so we don’t have a whole lot of say in Washington. Domenici is someone to be admired by anyone, no matter what their politics, for all he’s accomplished.”Wallace said, “We will have lost several voices when this election’s over,” referring to the fact that New Mexico congressmen will be giving up congressional seats and seniority to run for Domenici’s seat in the Senate.” Wallace also provided the group with some history on the question of the lab’s being taxed with gross receipts tax. “When UC had the contract, people wanted to tax it, assuming that it would be tacked on, not come out of the budget,” she said.Nancy Bolme said, “It really angers me that nobody realized that if you take out $150 million, it will cause job cuts,” and then added, “I’d like to know what current plans are for expansion of the town.”“The council put the judicial/police jail complex on hold in recognition of the anxiety we feel,” Baker said. “We have some state mandates, and we’ve really been treading on thin ice with our jail. We really need it, but council would not shove it in the face of the people.”Wilson asked Baker if he thought the economic analysis the Boyer Company did would still be valid in light of the lab cuts.“They do a lot of research, but I’m sure they didn’t factor in a 30-percent reduction in lab staff,” Baker said. “We’ve built everything we can into our agreements to take care of that downside risk.” Baker added that the county would receive damages if Boyer decided to pull out of their agreements.As the time scheduled for Baker’s talk drew to a close, discussion became more heated, and Baker had little time to respond to increasingly pointed questions, like “How can you build more retail when two-thirds of the stores in White Rock are empty?”“The U.S. retail market is way different than it was in the Mom-and-Pop days,” Baker said. “That’s not the model retailers see today. They see a larger anchor store, and the synergy created by the anchor supports the specialty stores.”“I was hoping we would get a conversation,” Baker said, “and I got my wish.”