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State of the County: Los Alamos here to stay

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos used to describe itself as a “temp town, here at the behest of the federal government,” County Administrator Max Baker said Thursday morning. But, he said he hadn’t heard that said in about 10 years.

“The county and the community has decided we’re here for real,” Baker  said.”We need to take charge of our destiny.”

Baker gave his third state of the county report to a cordial breakfast meeting of the Chamber of Commerce. He structured his report around the proposed regrouping of the county’s strategic goals and objectives into five categories, set for approval in Tuesday’s regular council meeting.

He credited the council’s wisdom in developing a strategic plan for having given a focus and long-range direction to county government.

In a 40-minute talk Baker gave a view of county business from a fairly high altitude, drilling down to a number of details along the way.

On goals

The first goal, for example, is to “stick to our knitting,” as Baker phrased it: maintaining “the quality of routine services and supporting infrastructure, as it is formally expressed.”

He said that hopefully, it’s done “in a way that’s invisible,” adding, “The county is one of the best anywhere and certainly in New Mexico of delivering these essential services.”

A second goal calls for improved intergovernmental relationships.

He thanked Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, for facilitating better relationships on the state level.

As signs of progress, he cited the cooperative agreements with local governments for regional transit and coordinated economic development planning, more meetings with the neighboring pueblos, monthly meetings with the laboratory and the partnership with the school district “to jointly vacate the 40-acre parcel (Trinity Site Revitalization project) and make it available for private development.”

Economic development

Baker emphasized that providing additional amenities for White Rock was very much included in the county’s goal of diversifying the economy and revitalizing the downtown areas.

The county recognizes the need to “capture” the revenues from the tourists passing through, he said, calling them “a captive audience that we’re not capturing very well.”

Council will hold a town hall at 7 p.m. Thursday at Fire Station No. 3 in White Rock, for a last round of public input on the plans and strategies.

This will be a “did we ge it right?” meeting with the community, Baker said.

He said the Trinity Development agreements are still not finalized, but he said that agreement was not the critical path just now. Rather, the priority is to get the functions and services located on the property moved to the Airport Basin.

A 60-percent design approval for the Airport Basin project is on the agenda for a special council meeting May 15, with the intention to award a contract for “construction manager at risk,” Baker said this morning in a follow-up call.

Environment and transportation

In sheer numbers of examples, the county administrator had the most to say about the fourth priority, maintaining environmental quality. He covered the new Waste Water Treatment Plant that has, among other benefits, improved the smell of the golf course after irrigation.

Of the county’s irrigation projects, he said, “The watering still gets in the road and we still water during a rainstorm,” but those kinds of problems are growing more infrequent.

He mentioned briefly the bureaucratic difficulties involved in closing down the county’s landfill and continuing the search for a place to haul future solid waste – now reduced considerably, thanks to the recycling ethic that has taken hold in the community.

The county’s new Environmental Sustainability Initiative, he said, will increasingly bolster the whole idea of “reducing our carbon footprint” and “making wise decisions.”

A fifth goal, to improve transit and mobility, has blossomed dramatically in the last year, not only with the regional transit but also with the county’s purchase and major upgrade of the local bus system.

Baker said Atomic City Transit was not just a “home run,” but a “grand slam home run.”

He said he could not rule out the possibility of having to charge for the service, but that the county’s calculation is that it would cost more to charge for the 16,000 rides they are providing each month, than it would be worth to charge $1 per ride. He attributed the huge success to the good customer service and faithful performance of the drivers.

One question from the audience raised the nagging issue of the Jemez bypass intersection, a result of the federal government’s decisions on a new security perimeter at the laboratory.

Baker recalled that a law suit filed by the county was based on concerns that the current “free and open” access to the western reaches of the county might one day become “free but restricted,” or just plain “restricted.”

The county has been developing alternatives for its portion of the bypass that requires various alignments with the existing roads in order to provide an assurance of open access from the Omega Bridge to the Camp May road and points west, including Bandelier National Monument and the Jemez Mountains.

In answer to a specific question, Baker noted that the governor’s pledge to provide half the funds for what was estimated as a $12 million road had so far resulted in only $2 million in state funding.

The council’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday in the Community Building. The budget hearing will continue with a focus on the capital improvement program and process revisions.