Reductions in services raise concerns

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Budget > Council raises concerns about cutbacks

By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos County council members had few questions as elected officials and department directors laid out their plans for reducing expenditures in FY2014 at Monday’s budget hearing. However, a couple of items did raise concerns about the impact on residents’ welfare and the health of the county as a whole.
A 19 percent reduction in gross receipts tax revenues has resulted in a 13 percent decrease in the general fund and hit some programs even harder.
Community Services Director Charlie Kalogeros-Chattan will be returning to council on April 30 to talk about the impact on the healthcare assistance program (the indigent fund), which is largely funded through GRT. A $394,000 — or 19 percent reduction —in revenue is projected just as demands are higher than ever.
Councilors asked Kalogeros-Chattan for assurances that cutbacks to social services would not negatively impact vulnerable members of the community. Some groups have been saying that as much as $155,000 could be cut from social services.
Kalogeros-Chattan explained that in some cases the money had been redirected, such as into the salary for the new social services manager, who will take over the coordination of contractual services from the Community Health Council.
Budgets for the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board (JJAB) and the Teen Center will be based on actual expenditures in recent years, which frees up more money for other programs. JJAB’s budget will be reduced from $140,000 to $120,000. JJAB spent $112,000 in 2012 and is projected to spend $100,000 this year.
The Teen Center will receive $180,000 instead of $189,000 and may need to reduce some ratios of staff to teens after school.
“A lot of people are needing services that are coming out of the woodwork that we haven’t had to deal with in the past. And some of that pushes down into kids, especially with some of the prevention items,” Councilor Rick Reiss said.
“We need to make sure that we continue to support the local organizations that provide the assistance to those kids, either directly or indirectly. Any funding that will help those organizations stay alive will help them council a student that needs some help. If they aren’t there, because we’ve contracted elsewhere, they might miss out on an opportunity to save somebody.”
“I see tremendous leverage out of our Community Health Council and some of the organizations,” Councilor Steve Girrens said. “For every dollar you spend, it seems you get four or five or six in return in leverage. I would hate to see us be extra thrifty in that area. I would rather see more set aside in contracts so they know they have more free energy to do exactly what is needed. I think there are some underlying issues in the community that we’re closing our eyes to.”
Another item that went into the “parking lot” for more in-depth discussion on Wednesday is a $216,000 reduction in the Lodgers’ Tax, a 30-percent decrease. The Lodgers’ Tax funds the visitor centers and tourism marketing programs for the county. That fund is replenished through a tax on hotel stays, which have decreased mainly due to Los Alamos National Laboratory activity dropping off.
“We have this brand new beautiful building,” councilor David Izraelevitz said, referring to the White Rock Visitor Center. “I personally would be very reluctant to reduce the utility of that resource, given the investment we’ve placed in it.”
“We’ve got a beautiful facility, and it’s kind of funny to show up at two o’clock and there’s nobody there, because we close at two in the winter months,” Reiss said. “And we have people in the RV parking lot that perhaps aren’t getting direction to some of the local businesses and so forth. We’ve made a huge investment in our visitor centers and we can’t have them closed.
“Another part of the Lodgers’ Tax money goes to advertising the community in Texas and the southern part of the state. We have to make people aware that we do have something to do up here, and it may be that we need to put some more money into that from somewhere. “
“We’re looking at maximizing what we get out of the dollars, and we’re just now evaluating and exploring options,” Community and Economic Development Director Anne Laurent said.
“It may not be reducing service, it may just be thinking about it in a different way, to get a different product at a different price.”
Councilor Pete Sheehey suggested looking at economic development funds to augment Lodgers’ Tax spending.
“It seems to me that you need more promotional programming, that you want to make your visitor center more functional,” Sheehey said. “I think this council needs to decide, is that an appropriate level of spending in this department, and if we want to spend more, where are we going to get it?”
Deputy County Administrator/Chief Financial Officer Steven Lynne responded that economic development funds are already being used for the marketing and branding study currently underway and for the new air service.
Department directors continue with their reports at 7 p.m. tonight in the community building.
The Department of Public Utilities also makes its presentation, followed by outstanding items. County Administrator Harry Burgess would like to complete the hearings this evening, but Council Chair Geoff Rodgers was doubtful that could be accomplished.