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The overwhelming message taken away from Thursday’s economic issues forum is that Los Alamos County is tough on business.
“From everyone I’ve talked to, the process is broken … if Los Alamos County were a business in itself, it would be out of business,” Democratic council candidate Nathan Hjelm said.
The perception is that getting a permit in this town to build or expand is a cumbersome endeavor at best.
“It can take years to get a permit for remodeling ...” Republican Ralph Damiani said.
The Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce and the Los Alamos Monitor sponsored the forum at which 10 of the 11 candidates running for county council participated.
Due to the death of his mother, appointed councilor Ralph Phelps, a Republican, was unable to attend the evening event held at the Los Alamos Research Park.
Candidate responses to questions throughout the evening were laced with criticism toward the county’s permitting process and its impact on economic development.
Republican Tony Davis started his business in October.
“This is the worst county in the state to try to build in,” he said, adding that the issue starts at the top and that’s where it initially needs to be addressed.
Democrat Debbie Gill suggested the county research communities with successful permitting departments for the local Community Development Department to model.
“Clearly the message is the process is broken,” Democrat Ken Johnson said. “The process needs to be streamlined, it needs to be clear and it needs to be managed fairly.”
Republican Richard Hannemann suggested no matter which candidates are elected in November, number one on everyone’s list will be to deal with the permitting issue.
“Permits should be for the purpose to get the job done — not to drive people crazy,” he said.
Four of the nine questions asked during the forum by business leader Denise Lane and the Monitor were presented to the candidates in advance to allow them time to research complex issues.
In regard to the role the county should play in the assembly of land and property to enable development or redevelopment Republican Fran Berting said it should offer advice, tax incentives, land swaps and keep the zoning and rezoning process plain and simple.
“The county must and should acquire DOE land, we can also have more influence over how land is developed if the county does the packaging,” Republican Jim Hall said.
Hannemann referred to the county’s Vision Statement as the myopia statement when asked to define its meaning and to explain the need to use county resources to accomplish its goals.
The Vision Statement contains 14 components, which Gill described as a list of intentions to serve the present and future needs of the community and Republican Geoff Rodgers described it as a roadmap.
Republican Ron Selvege explained that while he likes the goals in the recently adopted county Economic Vitality Strategic Plan, he does not at all like the way they are implemented.
Hall called on the county and private sector to work together, since the county owns most of the land suitable for development, when asked how he feels about county government partnering with private business to achieve the county’s adopted economic goals.
A better option for the county would be to not increase the tax base so much as “to spend the money we already have more wisely,” Damiani said when asked what the role of county government should be in expanding the overall tax base and providing increased amenities for the community.
Another area that took a beating along with the permitting process is the county’s Web site. A couple of the candidates called for the county to completely revamp it to raise public interaction.
“I’m a computer scientist and I can’t navigate that site, it’s horrible,” Hjelm said.
The question tied in with how the candidates would shorten council meetings, which are notorious for dragging on for hours.
Damiani and Selvege advocate holding town hall meetings for public comment.
“There should be no public comment on the night of a vote,” Selvege said.
Damiani described public comment as critical to the council, also calling for town halls and other formats for public interaction.
Rodgers also called for council to limit agenda lengths and said councilors should explain their positions just once and respect the public input process.
When asked about the dangers of county running large surpluses while cutting taxes in terms of the county’s relationship with the state Davis said, “It’s embarrassing when government runs a surplus — I’d give it back to the taxpayers.”
The forum, which remained narrowly focused on local economic issues, drew a relatively large audience indicating voter interest regarding the candidate’s positions on the topic.
KRSN broadcast the forum live and PAC 8 recorded it for future airing.