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2018 in Review: County goes through many changes in 2018

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By Tris DeRoma

County passes flat budget

In the middle of 2018, the county council already started looking forward to 2019 as it moved to protect its finances with the news the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s new contractor was going to be a non-profit organization.

According to New Mexico tax laws, non-profits can seek exemptions from the state’s gross receipts tax.

Under the lab’s old, private contractor, the county received about $20 million a year in revenues generated by the tax.

The county released a budget guide for its proposed fiscal year 2019 budget in late March, a budget characterized by flat budgets in many categories. In it, the county has projected smaller increases over last year’s fiscal year 2018 budget.

“This year, the award of the LANL operations and management contract is still to be determined and could have a significant impact on GRT revenues to the county,” read a statement in the county’s budget guide.

The guide also mentioned a last-minute, failed attempt to get the state to start taxing non-profits through legislation.

“The county worked with regional neighbors to craft legislation to preserve gross receipts tax revenues for the county and the state. Senate Bill 17 passed the Senate (31 to 4) and House of Representatives (48 to 19), but was vetoed by the Governor,” a statement in the county budget guide said.

Los Alamos County Council Chair David Izraelevitz said the LANL contract issue is the “largest uncertainty.”
He also said however their will be some leeway given to county departments on where they want to put their priorities.

“There will still be some discussion and presentations at the council budget hearings, but my preference would be to reserve our detailed discussions for when we know more clearly what our budget situation is,” Izraelevitz said at the time.

Budgets in the proposed fiscal year 2019 budget that will remain the same include salaries and benefits for county employees, with the exception being increases negotiated for Los Alamos County police officers through union bargaining agreements.

The county also is projecting flat budgets, which means no increase over last year, in the Fire Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Energy. The county’s fiscal year 2019 budget calls for a $5.6 million contribution to the agreement, which is close in number to 2018 adopted budget.

One significant decrease in the projected 2019 budget is the budget for capital improvement projects. For fiscal year 2019, the CIP budget is $5.8 million lower than the adopted FY2018 budget.

Department of Utilities raises water rates with eye on new treatment plant

The Los Alamos County Board of Utilities voted in February to raise potable water and sewer rates by 8 percent.
Los Alamos County Council approved the rates in September.

Based on recommendations from the Department of Public Utilities presentations, the Board of Public Utilities voted to raise the sewer rates and water rates.

The department had two presentations, one for sewer and one for water. For each one, it presented four alternatives that generally call for an 8-percent increase starting in 2018. Each of the alternatives then proposes various rate hikes on top of the 8 percent through 2027.

The board unanimously forwarded both water and sewer increases on to Los Alamos County Council for final consideration and approval. For 2018, residents’ monthly sewer bills will be $47.46. For water, the rate will be $39.30.

The department presented three options for sewer rates at the meeting, all of them involved an 8-percent increase.

“...All of them (the options) show an 8-percent increase in 2018. It’s what’s required to get us on the path to generating cash reserves we need to have on hand before we can even finance replacement of the new treatment plant,”

Department of Public Utilities Deputy Utility Manager Westervelt said about the sewer rate increase portion of the department’s presentation. “We couldn’t get financing now because we don’t have cash reserves on hand to make payments on the debt.”

Sheriffs fight comes to quiet end

A major fight over the Los Alamos County Sheriff’s Office came quietly to an end in July when a New Mexico First District Judge ruled in favor of Los Alamos County, supporting the county’s request to bar Los Alamos County Sheriff Marco Lucero from performing law enforcement duties.

Lucero sued the county last August, demanding the New Mexico First District Court decide whether state law takes precedence over the county’s charter, which allows the county council to divide duties between the sheriff’s office and the county police department as it sees fit.

The county council opted last year to reduce the sheriff’s budget to about $7,000 a year and transfer process serving duties and Lucero’s executive assistant to the Los Alamos Police Department. Lucero’s undersheriff and two deputies were laid off, leaving Lucero with one duty to perform — maintaining the Los Alamos sex offender registry.

Los Alamos County Chairman David Izraelevitz said he hoped the judge’s decision will discourage further legal battles over the duties of sheriff in Los Alamos County.

“I am pleased by Judge (Francis) Mathew’s decision affirming the Council’s position that the Los Alamos County Sheriff should not engage in law enforcement duties,” Izraelevitz said. “I hope that the current Sheriff and anyone subsequently holding the position will abide by this decision so we don’t have additional public funds expended on this matter.

Blue wave washes over Los Alamos County

Democrats swept the Los Alamos County Council and the races for the sheriff’s office and magistrate judge on Election Day, turning the county blue across the board.

Sara Scott, David Izraelevitz, James Robinson and Randall Ryti garnered the most votes to win seats on council, according to the county’s official results.

“If the numbers turn out like they are, it’s a credit to our excellent candidates and our excellent team,” said Los Alamos County Democratic Party Chair Robyn Schultz. “We’ve got a really good organization that we’ve worked really hard on the last eight years to build. We recruited excellent candidates and that all came together tonight.”

Izraelevitz, an incumbent councilor, said the all-Democrat council did not mean that the party was pushing a certain mandate. Each councilor would bring their own set of priorities to council, he said.

How does a bicyclist cross the road…

The design phase for an underpass that will link Canyon Rim Trail to Entrada Drive and Pueblo Canyon Rim Trail started in early 2018, when completed, the underpass, which will go under NM 502, will accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists using the trail system.

Entrada Drive is inside Entrada Business Park, which is home to the New Mexico Consortium, the Los Alamos Co-op, The Holiday Inn Express and other businesses.

The project became a reality in April, when the Public Works Department secured a $2 million grant from the New Mexico Department of Transportation from the federally funded Transportation Alternatives Program.

“Our award is so large, it’s crossing over into fiscal year 2020,” County Engineering Project Manager Desirae Lujan said at a presentation before the Los Alamos County Transportation Board

The county kicked in another $340,000 in matching funds for the project.