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Council mulls CIP quandary

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Priorities: Sponsors tax council with difficult choices

By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos County Council chambers were buzzing Tuesday with supporters of various capital improvement projects (CIP). No time was allotted for public comment last night, but the community’s interest was evident in the high turnout and in the more than 100 emails council received in support of various projects.

Tuesday night’s session was limited to 15-minute presentations on six projects that have phase 2 approval, followed by 15 minutes of council questions. Chair Sharon Stover kept a tight rein on the proceedings.

County Administrator Harry Burgess and his staff had met with project sponsors in advance to inform them of budget constraints and encourage them to provide options for reducing project scope.  Some 17 CIP projects with a combined cost of $150 million are competing for $27 million allocated in the FY2013/2014 budget, and a projected total of $47 million in the next 10 years.

“The bottom line is, there is just not enough money to do all we want to do,” said Deputy County Administrator Steven Lynne.

Project managers and sponsors presented the following plans:  

Ashley Pond Park
Proposed project cost: $1,890,000
Primary goals: compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and improving water quality to reverse eutrophication.
Potential Modifications: eliminate boardwalk ($150,000) and stage and shade structure ($150,000)
Drawbacks of modifications: difficult and costly to retrofit later. The pond would have to be drained and holes drilled into the bentonite clay liner to install peers for the boardwalk and stage. This could potentially double the costs of the project and could also increase the potential for leaks in the liner. Councilor David Izraelevitz asked if peers could be installed in the initial process, and was told that was a possibility.     
Other funding options: LA Walks has received an $18,000 grant from the State of New Mexico for ADA accessible sidewalks.

Golf Course improvements
Proposed project cost: $9,888,500 if implemented in one year. Preferred action is a four-year phasing plan costing $11,283,800, which would keep half the course open during construction (less chance of losing golfers to other courses) and allow CIP funding to be spread over four years.
Primary goals: irrigation, safety, renovations to tee boxes, greens and fairways. The preferred option relocates the driving range, relocates two holes outside the current golf course footprint, eliminates the need for netting and improves aesthetics, addresses safety issues and creates a regional park and a course competitive with other area facilities.
Modification 1: leave as is with no capital investment, with a recommendation for increased operating budget to improve course condition.
Drawbacks: identified safety issues and irrigation are not addressed and declining course conditions lead to declining rounds of golf.
Modification 2: install new irrigation and netting around driving range and Diamond Drive, renovate current greens, tee boxes, and fairways.
Drawbacks: Renovations will not address the safety zones between the fairways and holes or make the course competitive with the surrounding facilities.
Other funding options: limited potential to increase fees without losing golfers to other courses. Sponsors have not looked at grant funding, but said there may potentially be funding available for its sustainable design. Supporters suggested combining all recreational CIP projects and asking voters to approve a recreational bond.
Vice Chair Ron Selvage asked about a phase 1 estimate of $8 million. Community and Economic Development Director Anne Laurent said that was a preliminary estimate which did not include costs such as contingency funds and Gross Receipts Tax.

Ice Rink improvements
Proposed project cost: $5,231,000 for a covering, lift station and connection to sewer, additional parking and remodeling locker rooms/restrooms.
Primary goals: address safety issues through additional parking and providing separate locker rooms/restrooms for female users. Cost: $1,522,000
Modifications: delay cover and lift station.
Drawbacks: lift station: some odor when tank is being pumped. Cover: not able to extend skate season and attract additional tournaments, resulting in a loss of revenue. Taos estimates one tournament brings in $95,000 in additional tax revenue.
Other funding options: Los Alamos Hockey Association would provide $25,000 toward cover, patrons would support a fee increase and  (with the cover) additional tournaments could generate up to $500,000 a year in tax revenue.
Councilors were concerned about the potential for flooding in the canyon and the fact that the parking would still be inadequate to the need due to landlocked conditions (this could be addressed with shuttles). They asked of sponsors had looked at the option of building a new facility in conjunction with another project such as the teen center, and were told that had been outside the scope of the project.

Nature Center
Proposed project cost: $4,742,217
Primary goals: provide classroom, exhibit and hands on learning spaces to meet demands of increasing usage and create a tourist attraction.
Modifications: remove the Net Zero Energy Solar Array and reduce LEED from Platinum to Silver ($435,000). Move the building back from the canyon edge and simplify design (cost not available). Remove planetarium dome and fixtures ($296,000).
Drawbacks: Solar and LEED: some of the educational value of the building would be lost. Building design: simplified design would result in “just another building,” reducing the building’s potential as a tourist attraction. Planetarium: tourist and educational attraction would be lost.
Other funding options: it may be possible to obtain other funding for the solar array and planetarium at a later date.  A USDA Rural economic development grant might also be an option.
Selvage asked why a simpler design used with other nature centers was not considered. Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) Facility Director Chick Keller said the educational center focus required a more complex design than gift shop/visitor center facilities.

Teen Center
Proposed project cost: $8,932,000
Primary goals: a variety of spaces to meet multiple needs for leisure activities, classroom, study and programming space, with a focus on filling space and programming gaps not currently being met.
Modifications: postpone a 6,500-square-foot multi-purpose performance space ($2,721,000). Explore recent offer of space at Central Park Square. Early estimates are $4 million for remodeling (no multi-purpose performance space included).
Drawbacks: multi-purpose space: currently little or no space available for dances, performances and other large group activities.  
Other funding options: during school hours, there is the potential to lease space to workforce development and possibly to other community groups to generate income.
Selvage asked why it would cost nearly as much per square foot to renovate Central Park Square as it would to build new. The response was that usually with renovations there were unexpected problems and remediations that drive costs higher. Councilors were concerned that remodeling costs could go higher than the estimate.

White Rock Visitor Center
Proposed project cost: $16,055,770
Primary goals: create a shared facility with multi-functional areas to replace inadequate and antiquated facilities (White Rock Branch Library, Senior Center, Youth Activity Center, Activity Center and Town Hall).
Modifications: (Not reviewed or endorsed by the sponsor.) Option 1: decrease scope by approximately 10 percent ($15 million total cost). Option 2: limit project to the $8.4 million balance of the $20 million placeholder allocated for implementation of the White Rock Master Plan. Councilors also suggested leaving the Youth Activity Center at its current location.
Drawbacks: the remaining $8.4 million would severely reduce the scope of the project to building a library or senior center, the two most urgent needs. Sponsors contend a 10 percent reduction would not meet usage needs.
Other funding options: the Montessori school has expressed some interest in renting space, and there could be additional rental income from other groups.

Tonight’s agenda

Council continues its discussion CIP projects this evening. The session opens with an overview of 11 additional CIP projects, followed by public comment.

Public comment will be limited to 90 minutes. Those wishing to speak will take a number at the door. Numbers will be chosen at random to allow for a wide sampling of public comment, since the 90-minute limit may not accommodate everyone wishing to speak.

Staff is encouraging project sponsors to coordinate the efforts of their supporters, perhaps by preselecting two or three people to represent their project and encouraging other supporters whose numbers are selected to yield their time to them. Each speaker will have a three-minute limit.

After public comment council will begin prioritizing projects by first dividing them into three tiers. Council will then discuss the 10 projects in the top two tiers, tentatively decide on preliminary budgets and determine a preliminary schedule. The preliminary schedule will again be reviewed and possible changes or reprioritization made. The goal is for council to approve a final CIP schedule by the end of the evening, with a list of projects for staff to proceed with.

If council approves a reduced budget for a project, staff will work with sponsors and user groups to reduce the project scope, then return to council for final approval.

Ashley Pond CIP

It is pier, not peer.