Los Alamos County Councilor Pete Sheehey
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
A lot has happened in Los Alamos County since Councilor Pete Sheehey was elected to office for his first term in November 2012. When he took is seat in January 2013, his fellow councilors were Geoff Rodgers, David Izraelevitz, Steve Girrens, Kristin Henderson, Fran Berting and Rick Reiss. Sheehey had served on the Planning & Zoning Commission for the previous four years. A scientist for Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 2012, he accepted the Lab’s voluntary separation program and retired.
Sheehey chatted with the Los Alamos Reporter earlier this month about his eight years in office. When he joined Council in 2013, he said the Lab had been booming and gross receipts tax revenues were “coming in like mad”.
“There were all kinds of ambitious plans but suddenly the Lab budget got cut back and there were a lot more plans than there was money to spend. So right away as a councilor, I was involved in prioritizing the County’s capital improvement projects and I’m proud that we didn’t just shut everything down,” he said.
He noted that at that time, there was a plan for a teen center – a brand new building that was going to cost $8 million and be located in the current Smith’s development. At the time, the most the County could spend on it was $4 million, so Council looked at a few plans and came up with the idea of remodeling the community building.
“$4 million they built a really fine functioning teen center and I think most people agreed that’s been a big success. It’s used heavily and that’s something I feel good about,” Sheehey said.
White Rock at that time desperately needed a new library and the senior center remodel.
“They had some more ambitious plans for all that and we cut them back, but still managed to fix up a much improved senior center. There’s still a community hall there where they have meetings and the library I think most people agree is beautiful,” he said.
Council was much more bipartisan then than it is today, Sheehey said, yet that group worked together extremely well.
“We made those hard decisions – those budget hearings were tough because it was clear we didn’t have the money to do everything we wanted to do but we fairly prioritized. I’ll say I’ve had my ups and downs with the four different groups of councilors over the eight years, but on budget matters we have largely come to pretty good agreement. I can’t say on any of those budgets that I have had any real gripe,” he said.
Sheehey said for a county of 18,000 people, Los Alamos County may have the biggest budget in the state if not in the nation when counting the Department of Public Utilities which accounts for about half of it.
“With the other stuff, we’re spending close to $200 million a year and yet we have pretty low property taxes guaranteed by this state’s standards and they’re right in the middle – not overly high or low, of course because of the Lab,” Sheehey said.
The fight for gross receipts came much later when the Lab was changing contractors. Sheehey said there was no doubt in his mind that there were bean counters in Washington that would have been just as happy to just say they would hire a non-profit contractor and save themselves all the GRT they had been paying.
“Some people felt that would have been a good thing but that would have cut such a hole – in the order of $20-30 million a year – out of our discretionary budget and that would have been really difficult. It was essentially a three-year fight for us to get that squared away. It took very active work on our part in the legislature to explain that issue. It wasn’t just going to cost us $20-$30 million, it was going to cost the state $20-$30 million and that’s small compared to their overall budget,” he said.
The first year the bill didn’t get passed and the second year it passed but former Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it despite the fact that the bill had bi-partisan support. Finally, the third year, the bill was passed- again with some bipartisan work, Sheehey said.
“This is a touchy thing because if the bill had not been written correctly, it could have been attacked in court and what a mess that would have been if we’d lost that. If we had something passed and we’d started collecting and spending, and then lost in court and had to put the money back that would have been poor, but we got some fixes in that basically made that bill pretty much legally solid,” he said.
He noted that the GRT issue is there to this day.
“The state and some of our neighbors are jealous that we have that wonderful income. Of course, we’re not an island. We care about our neighboring communities and I’m happy right now that we have put a substantial amount of money into what we call Progress Through Partnering which is money specifically aimed at building the regional economy not just Los Alamos, and helping our neighboring cities and counties however we can,” Sheehey said.
He said he has been delighted over the years to be part of the North Central Regional Transit District which covers much of Northern New Mexico and is a lifeline service to some of the outlying communities and pueblos. He said the County put millions into the District early on and right now subsidizes it to the tune of about $350,000 a year. There are other programs that Progress Through Partnering also covers and that’s a good thing, he noted.
“Some would like to change the law to collect that GRT that we’re collecting directly and leave us out of the loop. Fortunately it’s not that simple because GRT is generally aimed straight at and the taxes are paid where the money is spent. To say you’re spending money in Los Alamos and the taxes on that are going to go somewhere else or for state taxes in general, that’s not so easy to do and that’s something Council will continue to watch. At the same time we need to help our neighbors and we are,” Sheehey said.
Another aspect of this is the schools funding formula, he said.
“We get a subsidy from the Department of Energy for our schools but it’s not like we’re the only county in the state that gets extensive subsidies. With the schools funding formula, there are frequent efforts to adjust that so that Los Alamos gets less and other counties get more. Of course, education is vitally important. We want everybody to have as good an education as you can get in Los Alamos and I’m hoping we will see progress on that,” he said.
He noted that there has been some progress on education in recent budgets in the legislature, partly driven by the Yazzie court decision which found the state had not been supporting education at a satisfactory level.
“Fortunately they had money. This year’s budget is a little touchier with the loss of oil revenue. The latest projection we’ve seen is that somehow they think it might not be as bad but with COVID and everything else – God only knows. Even though you’re a local county councilor you have to pay attention to both the state and federal issues,” Sheehey said.
Looking back on the four different groupings of seven councilors, he said the first one and this most recent one have in some ways been easiest for him to work with. On major budget issues, all of them have agreed but there were a few issues he lost that he didn’t get the votes for. He noted that the Los Alamos Nature Center is one of the capital improvements Council can be proud of for its educational and recreational use and for the number of visitors it attracts. Sheehey also chatted about the failed 2017 Recreation Bond Election.
“There wasn’t enough money in the budget to go ahead with a big recreational center and gym and so forth so they came up with this $20 million bond proposal. From the start of that, things were getting a little better but we were still facing this big question of GRT with the new Lab contractor. I pretty much knew the voters were not too likely to go for the bond, and it’s not that they’re cheap, it’s just if there’s uncertainty about the taxes coming in, do you want to take on additional debt,” he said. “It didn’t surprise me that that bond failed but it is irritating that some take that vote as a vote against any capital improvements virtually, whereas it was a vote against bonding $20 million for capital improvements.”
Since then, said GRT revenues have been great and Council has gone ahead with further projects, which is a good thing, he said but there are always going to be disagreements about priorities.
“On all these types of projects, on anything major, I try to not only talk to people and listen, I try to write down what I know and get it in the papers and let people know what I’m thinking. The Council has been uneven in how we do that,” Sheehey said.
He noted that this had caused issues when Council announced details of the proposed Marriott hotel and conference.
“Negotiations were going on for that and the very first notice had so very little information that suddenly there were conspiracy theories that the Council was trying to pull a fast one on the citizens. I don’t believe that at all. It really believe it was just a failure to get that information out. I did my best to get the information out,” Sheehey said. “On the consideration, I was one of the swing votes that said this proposal as it stands needs improvement. Certain other people on the Council were not very happy with me. It’s not that I didn’t want that project. There was the potential of a lot of benefit, but we had to for starters just get the deal out in the open.”
He discussed the effects COVID has had on Council meetings with having to do things by Zoom.
“We’ve been having effective meetings. We had a marathon meeting last summer when we were considering the Family Strengths Network contract. People rose up and we had 80 or so comments and we stayed there and listened and they got their message through, so it is possible to make public comments,” Sheehey said, although we said he misses the fact-to-face contact with the public, including chatting with citizens during breaks in meetings which he called “part of the social fabric”.
Sheehey has particularly enjoyed his interactions with all kinds of people throughout the state through his involvement in the New Mexico Counties board of directors and other boards he has served on during his eight years in office, but it’s clear that he enjoys the personal contact more than virtual meetings or phone calls.
“The more contact the better. Face to face I’m better than on the phone. Not everyone agrees with me but I could generally find something within a couple of minutes that we agreed on. That’s how democracy has to work. We’ll get back to having face to face. I am hopeful on these vaccines but it may be the middle of next year before the large number of people can be vaccinated,” he said.
Sheehey believes it is important for councilors to write in local media and get the facts out there for people to hear, something he has frequently done during his time in office. He credited his wife, Naishing, with being his best editor and helping him to write clearly and to the point.
“Everybody on Council needs to be doing that. If one councilor wrote something each week, people would be a little better informed about what’s going on. When you’re negotiating certain things there’s confidentiality but ultimately if you’re going to do anything in the name of the people they’d better know about it. You try to pull something on them – you’re going to have a huge pushback,” he said.
Sheehey feels people in Los Alamos County are “pretty environmentally-conscious”.
“I feel the Council should be more proactive on environmental issues. I don’t understand. A few years ago when the bag ban first came up, it’s not that I was dead set on banning plastic bags, but there were a lot of things we could do. I proposed a resolution just saying I understand plastic bags were an issue. At that time I couldn’t even get a second to that resolution,” he said. “More recently we had that ugly business – another petition. It was clear that there weren’t the votes to ban plastic bags but we did take an action about composting and education and so forth.”
He said he wrote a resolution basically saying what Council has done and commending local businesses and individuals that are doing more.
“I still don’t understand that Council wasn’t even prepared to pass this resolution. I think the citizens are more environmentally conscious and willing to do more than for some reason the Council is,” Sheehey said.
Another accomplishment by Council during his term was good thing was getting the comprehensive plan updated.
“That was an example of a huge amount of community input. Community people clearly said we appreciate the need for housing but open space is important and we can preserve that. They’re still implementing that plan in the development code. Some neighborhoods can take some additional housing and some can’t,” he said.
Mulling over some of his proudest moments, Sheehey, a believer that resolutions by Council, said they are not just words.
“Four years ago when President Trump came out with very draconian restrictions on immigration – not so much controlling the immigration from Mexico – but these strictures on Muslim countries and so forth, I really felt strongly. I understand that there’s national security, but to do these blanket divisive things. I wrote a resolution that said, ‘Wait a minute’. The constitution protects all persons not just all citizens. Yes, citizens have special rights but I wrote a little resolution saying we follow the constitution. There was a flap about that with a couple of Republicans and rather than push it through 5-2 in favor, I talked with then Councilors James Chrobocinski and Rick Reiss and we rewrote it mildly into a resolution that just said this county believes in the rights of all people in this country. I’m proud of that; that was an important thing to do,” he said.
He said he is also proud of a recent resolution passed by Council on the control of campaign finance.
“Of course that’s a long-term thing, but we’ve got to push. When $14 billion comes from God knows where to get people elected in this recent election- that’s perverting democracy and we see so many examples where laws get passed that aren’t what most people would agree with,” he said.
Sheehey said he is also proud that he was able to convince Council during the last budget cycle to make the minimum $15 an hour for permanent County employees. He said anything less than $15 an hour and people can’t live in this County.
“Even at that rate, it’s not easy. That’s something that makes a difference in people’s lives. We can afford it. Better to spend money on that than more recreational facilities. We are a fortunate county and that’s good,” he said.
After all that, Sheehey said he certainly believes in term limits.
“It’s been a good experience. I’ve done my best. I’ve tried to do my homework and do what’s good for the community. We are moving in a good direction, knock on wood. The Lab looks to continue to hire and that means good budgets but that means stresses on the town that we need to watch carefully. There are a lot of issues to deal with. I’ve done it for eight years and now it’s time to turn it over to the new folks,” he said.