County budget is in, now comes the wait

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By Bennett Horne

If its 2019 budget approval process were a game of chess then the Los Alamos County Council, having just made a move to put itself one step closer to a checkmate victory, is now waiting to see if the move will get snuffed out with a defensive counter or remain viable, thus keeping the door open for the win.

“We’re just playing a wait-and-see game,” County Manager Harry Burgess said Wednesday, the day after the council approved the $188,838,880 budget.

The county is now in the process of submitting the budget to the state while waiting on the outcome of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s contract decision, which will determine whether LANL is listed as for-profit or not-for-profit which, in turn, will have a major positive or negative affect on this budget.

“The best guess we’ve got is that we’ll know around June,” Burgess said. “You can see how it affects our operations. We just went through a whole process, months of preparing this, to essentially create a tentative plan.

“That’s the issue we’re up against,” he continued. “We’ve got a great economic driver, but we’re subject to their decisions because of that.”

Burgess said the last contract decision, which resulted in for-profit status, came in 2006, the benefits of which were felt over the next couple of years.

“When it went to a for-profit it was very fortuitous that it happened at the time it did,” Burgess said. “Basically the county inherited all this infrastructure from the federal government back in the ‘50s, so it was getting to be 60 to 70 years old and most of it needed to be replaced. Things were falling apart and we needed to re-invest.”

The county capitalized on the influx of funds by completing several capital improvement projects. More capital improvements and infrastructure upgrades could be realized if the contract decision goes the county’s way.

If not, then cuts to the approved budget will have to be made.

Either way, the council will have to revisit the budget after the contract is awarded.

“It will potentially cut or potentially increase our budget,” Burgess said. “This was just a stopgap not knowing which direction it was going. In that event we’re going to have to be talking about what our priorities are. Many of the county services that we provide today have been implemented since the lab went to a for-profit entity and so those are probably most at risk. They’re the expansion we did when our revenues increased and will have to be some of the first things we look at if our revenues decrease.

Burgess said the council has already been looking at options for changes to the budget once the decision is announced.

“We’ve already identified what type of new programs or changes to our current level of service: where those needs are and what that cost would be,” he said.

There were two additions to the budget that brought the final total to $188,838,880. One was in the amount of $45,000 to the police budget and the other of $24,625 to the municipal court budget.

The addition to the police budget was the second of three installments of a $135,000 cost of replacing the mobile data units in each of the department’s police cars.

“In order to make it palatable and easier to fit into the budget we didn’t think we’d get that full amount in one single year, in addition to all their other asks, so we split it into three asks, placing a third into their budget in three consecutive years,” said Burgess. “(The council) approved the first $45,000 last year under a one-time designation. We had to ask again this year and will have to ask for the last time next year.”

The addition to the municipal court budget was included to cover the hiring of a court clerk.

Burgess said the budget that is being submitted to the state is one that will at least allow the county on its current level of service.

“I’m happy that we have a budget to move forward into this next fiscal year,” he said. “It’s a budget that will allow us to be able to continue the level of services we’re providing today.”