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County opens budget hearings

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By Bennett Horne

The Los Alamos County Council opened hearings Monday night on its 2019 budget, the final draft of which is to be submitted to the state by June 1. Several departments presented their budgets, which were arrived at under a flat budget mandate by County Manager Harry Burgess because of the uncertain future of the status of the Los Alamos National Laboratory's contract.

"My direction to staff has been to prepare a flat budget within the general fund," Burgess said. "As everyone knows we're facing an uncertain future with respect to the laboratory's management, not knowing if it's going to be a for-profit or not-for-profit prime contractor and the impact that would have on the county's revenue sources."

The council heard budgets from 12 departments on Monday night and was scheduled to hear four more budgets Tuesday night.

The process is expected to carry over to Monday and Tuesday nights of next week.

For the most part, you will see overall the same level of expenditures as last year with minor deviations," Burgess told the council.

"That was our goal, a flat budget within the general fund because the general fund is largely dependent on that gross receipts tax that is at risk with respect to the turnover at the lab."

The council gave its tentative approval to budgets of the following departments Monday night: county council, municipal court, county manager, county assessor, county attorney, county clerk, probate court, county sheriff, administrative services, community services, fire and police.

All were tentatively approved by unanimous vote except for the budget of the county assessors office and the sheriff's department. While the county assessor department's general fund showed a variance of 3 percent, its property valuation fund showed an increase of 18 percent from last year.

"I'm concerned about your increased budget," said Councilor James Chrobocinski. "I don't think with the position we're in that it's time to be doing that. You're budget has ballooned 22 percent in two years and that's a huge increase."

County Assessor Ken Milder and Chief Deputy Assessor Joaquin Valdez presented the budget. Valdez explained that the increase in the property valuation fund is to cover the purchase of a commercial real estate data bank, at a cost of approximately $4,000, and a drone (with hardware and software), to be used for assessing property, at a cost of about $15,000.

"We buy flyovers every four or five years, depending on what the lab does, for the whole town site and White Rock," said Valdez. "With the development of A-19 and these other sites in Los Alamos we need to purchase a drone to fly over those areas for the period of time between the flyovers so we can get accurate information."

"We could be losing 60 percent of our budget," said Chrobocinski. "In the general fund, fine, but that's going to impact everything. Do you really think this is the time to be adding these extras? I realize they're important, but could you do your job without them? It sounds like we've been (doing without them) for a long time."

The flyovers cost approximately $150,000. The lab pays for all but about $30,000 of that expense, allowing the county to pay the balance and use the results.

As for the real estate software, Valdez said, "It will help us with our commercial real estate. Right now we send out questionnaires and don't get a good response. With this we can get a good response to value." He added, "It will help us to set a more fair and equitable assessment on those properties."

The council tentatively approved the budget by a 4-3 margin with Christine Chandler, David Izraelevitz, Antonio Maggiore and Pete Sheehey voting for it and Susan O'Leary, Rick Reiss and Chrobocinski voting against it.

The other budget that had to navigate choppy waters to passage was the budget of the sheriff's department. Prior to presented the budget for his department, Sheriff Marco Lucero said, "If you look back at the significant accomplishments from the past year, I think it's a great accomplishment for the sheriff's office to still be an office considering the budget that I have."

"The decrease in the current proposed budget over FY17 was due to the council transferring duties and budget to the police department," he continued.

The budget for the sheriff's office was cut from $85,411 to $15,510. In FY17 $65,336 was transferred to the police department and $4,575 was transferred to the general fund.

This decrease significantly impacted the sheriff's office and its ability to provide quality services to the community. Sheriff's staff was terminated and duties were transferred.

The sheriff's office was brought to a point of not being recognized at all by the Los Alamos County Council as an existing elected office in Los Alamos County. After presenting the budget summary, he said he believed it was the "duty of the council to listen to the voice of the people and provide the necessary resources to have a functioning sheriff's office in Los Alamos County."

He added, "After the 2016 vote, the people of Los Alamos County chose to retain and have an elected sheriff's office and demanded that Los Alamos County Council recognize and support the elected office of sheriff in Los Alamos County. Options for the sheriff's office budget included a full salary for the sheriff as well as other basic items. I'm also asking that due to New Mexico state statute 444-14, which was newly passed in our state Legislature, that the new sheriff coming in receive his annual budget for his salary as dictated by that statute, which is $68,654 dollars for the newly-elected sheriff,” he said, adding, “And these are basic items the new sheriff will need to function as a basic sheriff’s office: A full-time under sheriff, a full-time executive assistant, both of which are required by state statute, three part-time reserve deputies, training for the deputies and for the staff, transportation vehicles for the sheriff and his staff and, of course, the all-important communications so they can have communications for our dispatch for better safety."

Chrobocinski said he wanted to see a flat budget of $85,000 be returned to this department.

"I would consider a flat budget to be $85,000, which is where you were at before it was taken away," he said. "A lot of these items, which are budget option items, I support a lot of them. Not all of them. I think once the lab contract is let these are things we need to look at and seriously consider."

Lucero said everything the county needs for a functioning sheriff's office is right there on the board, adding, "It'll be up to you to decide whether or not you're going to recognize the office."

Chrobocinski then made a motion to approve a sheriff's office budget of $85,000, which was seconded by Councilman Pete Sheehey. We need to return the sheriff's office to what it was, to do what the voters asked us to do and further budget options can be considered soon," said Chrobocinski.

The motion failed by a 2-4 margin, with the second motion, made to approve the original budget amount of $15,510, passed by a 5-1 margin with Sheehey abstaining.