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Talking taxes

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Council reaffirms their positions on property taxes

By Roger Snodgrass

Budget and finance matters preoccupied Los Alamos county councilors at their regular meeting in White Rock Tuesday night.

After approving an ordinance early in the evening to issue up to $25 million in bonds related to utility system projects, councilors had a lot more to say about budget matters during a portion of the agenda devoted to budget guidance.

County Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne asked for suggestions in several key areas of the budget, using a prepared list of policy questions as a starting point.

The questions were drawn from topics that generated substantive discussion in the past and included technical questions about the budget process and schedule, as well as more general questions about “level of service” provided by the county, revenue projection assumption and compensation philosophy.

A major focal point had to do with gross receipts tax levels and user charges, particularly in relation to property tax rates which are set to increase by 36 percent as a result of an approved school property tax bond measure.

Council virtually reenacted an episode from a budget hearing in April when Councilor Robert Gibson proposed that council approve a mechanism to offset the school levy by a reduction of municipal and county operational property tax rates. Reducing these taxes by a total of 5.5 mils, or $5.50 per $1,000 of assessed property values, he said at that time, would reduce the annual county revenues by about $4 million. The reduction would soften the tax burden on property owners and effectively shift some of the county’s recent windfall of GRT revenues to the schools.

After extensive discussion, Gibson’s motion that the reduction be incorporated into the FY 2010 budget failed by a vote of 2-5. His motion was seconded by Councilor Vincent Chiravalle. Gibson and Chiravalle voted in favor, while councilors Sharon Stover, Michael Wismer, Nona Bowman and Ralph Phelps, along with Council Chair Michael Wheeler and Council Vice Chair Michael Wismer were opposed.

Fast forwarding to Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor Vincent Chiravalle tested that outcome by proposing again that a reduction of 5.5 mils be included in planning for next year’s budget.

Gibson seconded the motion, he said, “for the purposes of discussion.”

He said that many property owners in Los Alamos were burdened and that there were items in the county budget that were merely placeholders, including “$70 million in the long-range plan that we can work with.”

The implicit question in the ensuing debate was whether any of the other councilors had changed their minds.

“I don’t feel any obligation to reduce property taxes because of what the schools did,” Phelps said. He added, “Lowering taxes is a good goal. There are sensible ways to do that.”

He suggested a more modest goal of $1 million in reduction, “something over a mil,” as an alternative.

Councilor Bowman said, “I haven’t changed my mind, but I knew this was going to come up.”

She said she had spent a lot of time thinking about where the budget could be cut, but saw mostly improvement that residents wanted.

Stover said her mind had not changed either.

“We finally have some money,” she said. “I want to keep doing.”

She added that she was open to reconsidering that position if the results of a community assessment directed otherwise.

She said, “If we’re not spending the money on things people want, I would say let’s give it back. It’s their money.”

Wismer also held his ground, citing lessons from the current woes of state government.

“Taking a 5.5 mil leap at this point and then having little ability to get it back would be mortgaging our future,” he said.

Wheeler agreed, calling the motion’s implications “foolhardy.”

“We will have a better idea in the future about our revenue stream, so it is premature to do anything now,” he said.

When the vote was taken, the results were exactly the same.

During the broader discussion on budget direction, other cost-saving suggestions were broached.

Among them, Phelps noted that cost of living index has turned negative.

“I would find it difficult to support a budget that includes an increase for county employees,” he said.

At the same time, he added that he would look favorably on supporting a more formal role in economic development for the county.

Tony Mortillaro, who has now taken over the position of county administrator, has spent much of his time on the development issues but will have a much larger set of responsibilities in the future.

“I would support filling that (economic development) role,” Phelps said.