Utilities get lion's share

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By Marganne Glasser

Los Alamos County Council tentatively approved the largest portion of its expenditures last night, the 2009 fiscal year budget of $71.9 million for the Utilities Department. An additional $18.2 million was OK’d for the Administrative Services Department, and $9.7 million for the Community Services Department.

Passage of $150,000 for a conceptual design of the golf course building was deferred until after council review of the newly revised Capital Improvements Program process and CIP budget at an additional meeting Monday.

“We have a champion golf course,” said Councilor Jim West, who participated by phone. “Two million dollars was set aside for the clubhouse four years ago. It could be a good tourist draw if we’d get serious about replacing that eyesore,” he added.

“We should invest immediately in doing the conceptual design and getting that project moving,” echoed Councilor Mike Wheeler.

In a letter to the Council read last week, Steve Boerigter, Parks and Recreation Board chairman, said top priorities also include the Canyon Rim Trail, light poles at North Mesa Field and Brewer Arena, parking and restroom upgrades at the ice rink, and replastering the aquatic center pool.

The parks maintenance budget includes a new staff position for ice rink maintenance and golf course concession management.

Library Manager Charlie Kalogeros-Chattan said the funding for information technology and facilities includes touch-screen personal computers, electronic signs and a pilot wireless “hot spot” project. Electrical and data wiring will be upgraded for future services development as well.

Laura Gonzales, Information Technology Division manager, said the department’s $50,000 budget increase includes a more comprehensive county Internet site slated for 2009. Virtual Private Network (VPN) access will be available and ultra-high-speed DS3 transmission lines will be installed for Fire Station 3, she added.

Assistant Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith gave a comprehensive overview of the utilities budget and operations.

He said the planned rate increase of 5 percent has been advanced to 2009 from 2010 because of increased construction expenses in 2008. “Although total utility bills are up, the increase is at a rate lower than inflation, even though energy prices are skyrocketing,” he said. While natural gas prices have tripled, county costs have been stable because three-quarters of the supply was at a price negotiated in advance, he explained.

Arrowsmith said it is difficult to contract for gas-price guarantees when prices are at a historical high in a “panic market,” yet he believes the county can save a half-million dollars a year by contracting for gas at fixed prices instead of market rates subject to increase. Tax-exempt, pre-paid natural gas purchases could reduce county costs below national index for 15-30 years.

“All I see is deficit, deficit, deficit,” said Councilor Fran Berting about the planned expenditures. “How are you balancing your budget?”

Arrowsmith said that cash reserves would be spent and bonds issued until capital improvement debts are paid off. Expenditures include the Abiquiu Dam hydroelectric project and upgrading the White Rock sewage plant. He stated he expects electricity revenues to be “a fantastic financial resource” for the county starting in 2015 when the plant is debt-free.

Arrowsmith said the county owns rights to San Juan-Chama water that flows through the Rio Grande. When construction on a pumping station is completed in 2013, the county will be able to recycle six-to-eight times more water by filtration than it does currently because of river water’s lower silicon content.

Arrowsmith stated that despite a contract convenience fee of $4.95, 38 customers had paid their utility bills over the Internet since the capability became operational on Monday.

The council resumes its review of the newly revised CIP process at 7 p.m. Monday at the Community Building. The final version of the county budget will be reviewed for passage on May 13.