Voter concerns come to forefront

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Council > Budget shortfall tops the list

By Arin McKenna

During the first work session of the year, Los Alamos County Council Chair Geoff Rodgers asked newly elected councilors Steve Girrens, Kristin Henderson and Pete Sheehey to relate voters’ concerns they heard on the campaign trail last fall.

Sheehey spoke up first, saying the overriding thing he heard was that the county “spends too much.” Capital improvement projects were one concern, with people not only wondering if the county could afford to build the projects but to maintain them.

“I would say most people I talked to, we live here, we work at the lab and we’ve been through the budget reductions at the lab for two years. I think they clearly saw budget problems coming, and they were concerned,” Sheehey said.

Sheehey said citizens expressed “strong support” for his own priorities for spending. Those are public safety, infrastructure, good public education, economic development and taking care of and enhancing recreational facilities, in that order.

“That’s going to guide my suggestions on the 29th about how we deal with our budget shortfall,” Sheehey said.

Henderson covered a broader range of concerns. She perceived that “despite gargantuan efforts” by county staff to keep the public informed, people feel a “disconnect” with the government and that they do not have a comfort level with what is going on.

According to Henderson, many people also feel their needs are not being met.

“There seems to be a lack of empathy for younger people in town, especially people with kids, that their needs aren’t met, that we’re really concerned with making this an excellent retirement community, that we’re really not concerned with having amenities and structure for keeping our families here,” Henderson said.

She also said voters felt economic development should be more focused on inhabitants, noting that “We have one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation, and we spend 80 percent of our money somewhere else.”

“So one of the things I heard was we need whatever can help businesses thrive up here, to make it so we can stay up here and spend our money up here and not be forced to leave,” Henderson continued. “Let’s try to recapture our own money before we try to get the phantom people from off the hill to come and spend money up here.”

People also question why the county cannot do more about “landowners that make the town look the way it looks.”

Some voters, particularly those new to town and younger ones, expressed a desire for a mayor or districted elections, feeling that a mayor would set a direction for the town and a district councilor would advocate for neighborhood needs.
Girrens opposed that idea.

“I like it that we’re not districted, because that forces us to be holistic,” he said, noting that districted councilors were more likely to be partisan about their district’s interests. “That’s what’s hurting the rest of the country now. We have to be holistic here and there’s a lot of pressure for responsibility to do the best for our community and how we fit in our community.”

Girrens had heard some of the things Sheehey and Henderson had heard and added a few more.

“I picked up frustration with county service execution,” Girrens said. “For example, a new road comes in and everybody’s happy. Then all of a sudden it’s trenched to do something else. And then it’s repaired, and all of a sudden it’s not a nice pretty new road any more it’s got construction down the center of it.”

Girrens was also under the impression that people were more concerned about K-12 education rather than higher education, something that Henderson had also spoken about earlier in the work session.

One of the complaints Girrens heard about the county’s spending was its regional support.

“I don’t know if everyone understands why we have to be so aggressive about being a good regional neighbor. That’s not in their day-to-day,” Girrens said.

Several people commented about council’s decisions on CIP spending, especially the decision to put the leisure pool — but not other projects — to a general obligation bond vote. Many felt that projects that received capital allotments served fewer constituencies than the pool.

“I had some people say, why did that need a vote and everyone else just keeps plowing right through?” Girrens said.”That was one project where, for whatever reason, we may not have been consistent with how we decided to pay for things. In a community that thinks you’re spending too much money, the quickest way to kill something is to do a bond election.”

Rodgers said hearing the latest concern of voters was very helpful. “I was in a campaign two years ago and what I heard actually differs from what you heard, and I’m sure Councilor Berting can attest to that as well,” Rodgers said. “It just goes to show that it is kind of a moving target and we’ll try to balance it as we go forward.”