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CEDD comes under fire during budget hearings

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County > Councilors critical of permitting process

By Arin McKenna

The road to approval of Los Alamos County’s FY2016 budget was a long and often contentious one.
The Community and Economic Development Department (CEDD) in particular came under attack from several councilors.
Councilor Rick Reiss spent 20 minutes questioning CEDD Director Anne Laurent about her job duties, later commenting on her “ability to do 15 things and do what most mothers do, manage several things at the same time.”
Reiss noted that 85 percent of the CEDD budget is spent on county facilities and economic development, with only seven percent dedicated to housing, building safety and planning.
“Making the permitting system work is not receiving the priority that it needs,” Reiss said.
Laurent acknowledged that the permitting process does sometimes take too long, and that staff investigates and attempts to correct those situations.
But Laurent argued that most applications do not encounter delays, and those that do are often held up because the county is waiting for required information from the applicant.
Several departments, including Public Works and the fire department, also must review permits.
Laurent expects the permitting to run more smoothly once the department’s new permitting software, InterGov, is launched. The software will expedite the application process by notifying staff of deadlines, allowing applicants to track the status of an application and providing metrics on performance.
The system is currently being programmed to align with the county code.
Reiss was unwilling to wait for InterGov to launch.
“I want people to come to town and build something. And whether it is right or wrong, the perception is, you can’t get it done in Los Alamos,” Reiss said.
Reiss made a motion to add another building official to the department, whose duties would include reviewing permits.
Vice Chair David Izraelevitz argued against that motion.
“I understand the urgency in certain parts of the community for additional permitting services. I also have heard certain anecdotal questions about it. I don’t know if they are just anecdotal, and I don’t know what the source issue is, whether it’s on staff’s side or the applicant’s side,” Izraelevitz said.
“I would prefer to wait until we have the software system put up. Suppose that we do something now, would we be able to tell in six months whether this is making a difference?”
Izraelevitz suggested limiting the position to half-time, but Laurent responded that it would probably be difficult to fill. She proposed a limited term position as an alternative.
Chrobocinski opposed Reiss’s motion for different reason.
“I know of numerous examples where it’s just not gone where it should,” Chrobocinski said. “It sounds to me like the problems are much deeper rooted than just getting one more person in…I’m having a real problem thinking about throwing more money at a department I think is underperforming.”
Councilor Susan O’Leary spent one hour asking CEDD staff to supply performance measures on every division of the department, questioning the value of several of the department’s initiatives as well as the quality of its data.
During the discussion on the Public Works Department budget, O’Leary proposed eliminating the $400,000 earmarked for air service subsidies, contending that the service benefits only “a pretty small segment of our population.”
“That money would be better used for other economic development initiatives that would benefit more of our citizens,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary suggested that the service was launched prematurely and should perhaps be delayed until the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is in place and tourism increases.
Economic Vitality Administrator Greg Fisher countered that the modeling software his division uses calculates a $4 return on investment of for every $1 spent. O’Leary questioned the validity of that modeling.
“I know that airports sound expensive, but national statistics say that communities that are located within 30 minutes of an international hub have a better chance of economic development,” Fisher said. “So if we have a 20-minute flight to Albuquerque, we’re actually in the running for projects that we might not otherwise get. Air service is something that is a foundational tool for a modern community. People need to travel fast to get somewhere.”
O’Leary’s motion failed for lack of a second.
O’Leary also questioned the value of the Bandelier Shuttle, based on anecdotal evidence from White Rock business owners.
“I talk to people and businesses in White Rock, and I’m not hearing anybody say that this has been any kind of boost to their business at all,” O’Leary said.
“I think we have to have quantifiable measures for this program, because otherwise we’re going to be doing it forever, and not necessarily knowing what we’re getting for it…$150,000 is substantial for us. We need to make sure that we’re getting value from this,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary also questioned the $2 million earmarked from the economic development fund for investment in either a water pipeline or a well for the ski hill.
“I don’t understand what we’re going to get for that $2 million,” O’Leary said. “By approving the budget we’re essentially approving the work project that we’re going to get out of the economic development department. And those didn’t look like solid numbers to me.”
County Manager Harry Burgess said the payback would come from increased Gross Receipts Tax revenues, potential future development and by providing water for improvements and possible development of Camp May. In past presentations to council, the potential for having a more reliable water source for firefighting activities has also been raised.
The New Mexico legislature has awarded $375,000 for the project, which the county plans to use for a well feasibility study.
O’Leary’s questioning elicited a number of updates on CEDD activities.
Fisher noted that the county has seen more than $100 million in investment over the last two to three years, with approximately half of that from private investors. Smith’s Marketplace accounts for the majority of that.
Information Management staff is in negotiations with one pueblo and one other entity for completion of the REDI middle mile, which would bring greater broadband access to the county.
“The middle mile is probably one of the most important infrastructure pieces that we have in the 21st century, to make sure that we have high-speed broadband and more affordable broadband for the community, especially for the businesses that are expanding here or wanting to relocate to our community,” Fisher said.
Two potential housing projects for the A-19 site in White Rock are currently under review.
Other housing aspects are not so good. Based on utilities records, CEDD estimates the county has approximately 500 vacant housing units. Those may be either single-family homes or apartments.
O’Leary asked Laurent to provide statistics on how that compares to other counties.
O’Leary showed considerable dissatisfaction with CEDD’s data and with the Economic Development Division in particular. She asked for updates from Economic Development every six months and requested statistics on such factors as GRT, the number of new retail establishments and the number of sponsored events to increase tourism.
The CEDD budget, with Reiss’s motion for an additional building official — $85,000, including benefits — passed 5-2, with Izraelevitz and Chrobocinski opposed.