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Modest tax relief measure gets nod from council

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Property owners will see a tax reduction of $1.5 million for FY2011

By Jennifer Garcia

Property taxes have been somewhat of a hot issue for Los Alamos County residents in recent years. Complaints about taxes that are too high have been heard at various county council meetings, but until recently, residents held little hope that things would change.

Property owners will now get some breathing room thanks to a motion passed Tuesday at the county budget hearings, by county council.

Council Chair Michael Wismer said that by approving the property tax cut, it will equate to a reduction of  $200 for a home valuation of $300,000.

Councilor Michael Wheeler moved that council tentatively approve a property tax reduction of $1.5 million for FY2011, and further moved that council delete Objective number 1D under Strategic Goal number 1, in the county’s strategic goals and objectives (to reduce spending and property taxes by $1.5 million per year for each of the next three years, 2011-2013), and that staff update the Projected FY2012 budget.  The motion passed 5-2, with Gibson and Chiravalle opposed.

Though Councilor Nona Bowman seconded the motion, not everyone was on the same page. Councilor Vincent Chiravalle moved, seconded by Councilor Robert Gibson, that council divide the question. That motion passed 4-3, with Wheeler, Bowman and Wismer opposed.

However, when it came to dealing with the motion to tentatively approve a property tax reduction of $1.5 million for FY2011, council voted unanimously to pass it. The motion related to the second question didn’t pass quite as easily.

Phelps voiced his concern over where, in past years, the budget had been trimmed. “During these years, the general fund grew at an average of 1.6 percent. Just looking at a snapshot from that data from 2004-2010, it looks li00ke increases for county employees grew at a rate of 4 percent. So, what that tells me is that we must have been cutting back somewhere else,” he said.

County Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne told Phelps that the county has had fairly tight budget guidance and said there’s not a great deal of additional low-hanging fruit. “We managed to meet the objective again in 2011, but the feedback we got is that we’re getting to the end of the line here,” Lynne said.

Gibson said he has been concerned about recurring spending for many years. “To say that we’re very close to what we were doing five or six years ago doesn’t mean we were at a good point five or six years ago. Now we’ve added the capital equipment side, which has become monstrous. There are a number of concerns here,” he said.

Wheeler, however, said that building a community takes investment. “To freeze the budget at a flat point, essentially limits that investment as to what this community wishes to do in terms of improvements, sustainability and basic infrastructure, but even worse than that, by making a motion of a flat budget, or an across the board cut, it sidesteps the issue of what services are we going to cut?” he said.

Following the vote on Objective number 1D, Councilor Ralph Phelps moved, seconded by Gibson, that the council substitute the following goal for 1D in the Strategic Plan: The budgets for FY2012 and FY2013 will be frozen at a nominal FY2011 baseline, but allow increases to offset annual inflation only. That motion failed 1-6, with Wheeler, Wismer, Bowman, Gibson, Chiravalle and Councilor Sharon Stover voting against it.

Another county budget hearing will be held at 6 p.m. tonight in council chambers. Residents unable to attend the hearing can watch it on PAC-8 or stream it on the Internet at www.pac8.org.