Listening to comments from the members of the community Wednesday at the Los Alamos County Council town hall meeting on infrastructure are, from lef, Council Vice Chair Pete Sheehey, Councilor James Robinson and Councilor Katrina Schmidt. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Utilities infrastructure, recreation projects and roads were the main focus of a town hall meeting Wednesday evening held by Los Alamos County Council Chair Pete Sheehey along with Councilors James Robinson and Katrina Schmidt.
Although there were fewer than a dozen community members present, concern was expressed about increases in water and sewer rates without apparent improvements to Department of Public Utilities infrastructure. This brought up the subject of the recent transfer of revenues from electric and gas funds to the general fund based on FY2018 operations which was approved by the Council. Background given by DPU for the transfer indicated that in 1997, to establish a methodology for determining operating funds to be transferred to the County general fund, the Board of Public Utilities and the Council agreed through a resolution to transfer from the electric fund and the gas fund an amount equal to 5 percent of retail sales to customers other than Los Alamos Public Schools and the County.
The transfer amounts are computed after completion of the County’s annual financial audit and include interest from the last day of the fiscal year to the date of transfer so each year’s activity is reflected in the following year’s budget. The transfer amounts computed for FY2018 were based on retail sales of about $11.3 million for electric and almost $4 million for gas which ended up being $567,249.46 and $194,513.03.
Councilor Sheehey said he has been asking County Attorney Alvin Leaphart if the County can take general funds and put them in the utility funds but that technically the County Charter would not allow this. He said the decision to transfer money from DPU into the general fund was made years ago but that it could be changed.
“We can change that decision. We can say no, we don’t need that profit – that money you can transfer from the gas and electric funds over to the sewer or the water utilities and do some of this work that needs to be done. That’s something that we’ll look at very seriously,” Sheehey said.
Sheehey said the gas and electric funds are pretty well set up right now.
“We’re fortunate that the price of natural gas is so cheap that we haven’t had to raise rates but the water and sewer are underfunded so that’s where we need to put money. We have been taking profit from gas and electric. We already have in place that we can transfer that money from one fund. The Charter says that the whole utility operation has to be funded. It doesn’t say only gas rates fund gas thing,” he said. “The law we passed recently in the last year allows us if the Board of Public Utilities and the County Council both agree to transfer money from one utility fund to another. It’s not the Charter that says we can’t do that – it was resolutions and ordinances that were set by previous councils so it’s not quite as hard to change.
Sheehey said he didn’t think he could get the issue of turning back the profit to DPU through in the next two weeks during budget hearings which are scheduled to begin Monday evening.
“I’m committed to getting a legal way to take that money that we have been using and putting it back differently into water distribution. We’ve got some sewer type problems. I’ve heard in the last couple of years, ‘You want to spend $20 million on a rec center and my sewer is backing up every year’. It’s true, there are up here in Los Alamos and one street in White Rock where there are perennial sewer back-ups. That’s not acceptable. If you move into our town you ought to be able to be confident that your sewer’s not going to back up repeatedly. It costs money to fix that. That’s a priority for me. That’s why I out and out wanted to take general revenues and put them into fixing things like that. If the Charter says we can’t do that then at least let’s look at this profit that we’re taking and put that into fixing those problems,” he said.
Councilor Robinson said almost all the Councilors agree that this needs to be looked at sooner rather than later. He said the transfer was put in place back in the time when the County didn’t have GRT revenues and the Department of Energy was cutting its aid to the County. He said at any point the Council could decide not to accept the transfer and leave it with DPU.
Community members also expressed concern about the condition of roads following major storms over the course of the winter. The proposed FY2020 budget includes $3.75 million for thin-moderate overlays on Diamond Drive although the County is seeking funding from both the federal government and the state to assist in the repair of the damaged roads. An additional $1.6 million is in the proposed budget for improvements to seven other streets as well as $300,000 for Phase 3 of the Canyon Rim Trail from Knecht to 15th and 20th Street.
Asked about the rapid deterioration of Diamond Drive, Sheehey said a recommended polymer blend had been used on the last re-pave because it was supposed to drain better in rainy conditions. He said the winter had been harsh and that repeated freezing and thawing had torn up the surface. He said he would look into whether that work was substandard and if there is any claim to be made against the subcontractor.
“The feedback I’ve gotten so far is that that material can’t stand a winter like we had,” Sheehey said.
The three Councilors also discussed the four projects that were part of the failed May 2017 recreation bond election but were approved in December 2017 by the Council. Those projects were: $720,000 for the a kiddie splash pad in White Rock, $4.5 million for improvements to the golf course, $1.2 million for improvements to the outdoor ice rink and $5 million for a kiddie/multigenerational pool at the aquatic center.
Councilor Sheehey said the bond election was a tough call. Wanted more people to be able to use the aquatic center. It was a tough call. He said five projects had been put together in a package and the voters were asked to let the Council pass a $20 million general obligation bond to build them.
“Well that was sort of a bait and switch because we had more than $10 million in the budget that could pay for three or four of those. We needed the $20 million to build the big recreation center. The voters with the new Lab contract looming said no. I certainly understand that. They turned it down. Some people to this day say, ‘We turned down all those projects – don’t do anything. We certainly had to hold off until we knew that the Lab contract and the legislation we just got passed would guarantee continued revenues. That money is still in the bank. We can still afford those four projects I mentioned and they had a lot of support.”
He said the Council held off on the four projects because until they GRT tax situation they believe they we’d better not go ahead with any of them.
“Well, the tax situation’s clarified. We can go ahead with those four projects,” he said.