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State of the County

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By Carol A. Clark

CountyAdministrator Max Baker’s annual State of the County address drew nearly a full house this morning at the Chamber Business Breakfast held at UNM-LA.

Baker detailed six main goals the county has accomplished or commenced:

• Maintain quality essential routine services and infrastructure;

• Maintain intergovernmental relations;

• strengthen coordination and cooperation between LANL and the region;

• Diversify the economy/revitalize Los Alamos and White Rock downtowns;

• Maintain environmental quality; and

• Improve transportation and mobility.

“Once in a while we miss a roll cart and for that citizen – it’s the end of the world,” Baker said in reference to the County’s goal of providing quality essential services. “But most often service is so well done it becomes invisible and it becomes under appreciated.”

The fire agreement with NNSA went into effect in October, he said, adding that the Los Alamos Fire Department is one of the first five to be certified in the world. He praised the men and women who make up the LAFD and said it maintains the highest ISO rating possible, which affords residents a lower insurance rate.

“We’ve gone two months without any unplanned power outages,” Baker said of the utilities department. “We’ve stopped the downward trend and are on the upward trend.” He explained the County has hired an expert who is fixing the electrical system, despite the aging infrastructure.

The County has completely overhauled its CIP (Capital Improvement Projects) process, inviting the community to submit proposals, Baker said. “One councilor said we’re even getting criticized from the public for ideas that came from the public,” he said. “But criticism is healthy for us…it helps us see all sides.”

Under the CountyCharter, Baker is responsible for proposed budget priorities. He has the ability to approve or reject items.

He explained that while some opposition was expressed about the Judicial/Police/Jail Complex currently under construction, state law requires the County provide a district court. The outdated jail does not meet regulations either, he said. “We have 10 people as daily guests in our jail as an average, and we don’t meet standard requirements so we’re taking a chance every day,” Baker said.

Because of delays in erecting a new MunicipalBuilding, County staff is scattered throughout the town and will be for some time. “We thought we’d be further along by now… One of the things we hope to do is suggest a process that is very open and that the community can understand,” he said.

When Baker first moved to Los Alamos, it was looked upon negatively by surrounding communities. “I’d hear from our neighbors, ‘You guys are those rich “blank”… who don’t care about any one but yourselves’,” he said. “Well that has changed a lot recently.”

Baker detailed several regional efforts the County is involved in that have helped to cement and maintain positive relationships. The Regional Public Transit System and the Espanola Basin Regional Issues Forum, focused largely on water and waste water are two such efforts. “We pay for the facilitator who keeps the group together and gives us an opportunity to network with our peers,” Baker said.

The County has just participated in the completion of the strategic plan for the REDI initiative (Regional Economic Development Initiative). “One of the goals is we don’t want this plan to be another binder on Max’s shelf,” he said. “We want it to be dog eared and used a lot.”

The last effort is to strengthen the coordination and cooperation between LANL and the region. “Ninety-seven percent of our economy is based on that single entity,” Baker said. He spoke of former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and how he was a major defender of the Laboratory and its programs.

“We saw it challenged a number of times and he fought and restored it every time,” Baker said. “Sen. Bingaman is a senior senator but he is the only one from our delegation… all the rest are freshman…, we as a region need to work proactively together on a single message and this includes the LANL folks, so we can work for and protect our interests.”

Baker likened that effort to the rally taken up by the communities surrounding Kirtland, Holloman and Cannon AFB during times of threatened cuts and closures.

“It’s going to be hard, but we have no choice and the County is willing to take the lead,” he said.

Baker spoke of the $20 million the County has committed to the White Rock Master Plan. He commended the Counties environmental efforts lead by Regina Wheeler saying Los Alamos recycles a whopping 40 percent compared to about 5 percent by many other communities.

He praised Nancy Talley and Mike Davis of the transportation division for the Atomic City Transit success. They’ve been in operation about a year and are already meeting their 10-year goal with some 40,000 riders per month. “I like to characterize this as a walk off grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series – an amazing success,” he said.

The County financial stability was rated by an outside rating agent who granted the County a superior rating because of the way it manages its finances, Baker said. They had a bond sale in October that sold out to investors across the United States in three hours. “Everybody outside of the County thinks we’re a good risk so don’t worry about our finances,” he said. “We will continue to be good stewards of the County’s finances.”

Baker also said the County is coming down the home stretch on the Trinity Site Project. Attorney’s for the County and the Boyer Company are finalizing the documents and Baker expects the agreements to be signed this summer.

“There’s been no reason for the Boyer Company to rush this process because we have to get off (the property) first before they can do anything,” Baker said.

Baker closed his address with select sentences from President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech he feels relate well to Los Alamos:

“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the state political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

“We’re doing big things here together,” Baker told audience members. “So don’t worry about big dreams – They can bring you to a bright future.”

Baker received enthusiastic applause after recalling how in the mid 2000s, area leaders came together and decided it was time to move the community forward, to take its destiny into their own hands.

“We’re doing it…all of us together…,” Baker said. “We’re tired of being mediocre or yesterday’s legacy – we’re taking our destiny into our own hands.”

Baker has worked for Los AlamosCounty for 17 years, with more than four of those years as county administrator. He introduced his wife in the audience. “She’s my support system in a lot of ways and I appreciate her very much,” he said.

Baker also mentioned he and his wife, Kathryn, have three children who have all gone through school in Los Alamos. They’re grown now and following college, his two sons have returned to Los Alamos. One of his sons is completing his master’s degree and working at the Laboratory. His youngest son works for SOC and his daughter is married and lives in Denver. The Bakers also have four grandchildren.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com, 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.