Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess retires at the end of May and is looking forward to swinging a hammer – for himself! Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
After spending the last 27 years in New Mexico, Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess, who is retiring at the end of May, says he doesn’t have any plans to move very far and has no immediate plans for work.
During a recent virtual Kiwanis Club meeting, Burgess noted that that being in a county manager position actually responding to folks from all directions – employees, elected officials and the community – all of which have needs, interests and demands, is a trying position.
“I’m very happy to have made it through this time, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to a little bit of relaxation without having those constant demands upon me. In fact, I have no plans for work. I’m not saying not at some point in the future but certainly not immediately. I hope to take a few breaths and in fact just be working for myself,” he said. “My wife and I have bought a place up in Tres Piedras that needs a little work and I haven’t found the time as long as I’m still employed here full-time, so I’m going to work for myself – swing a hammer and hopefully fix that place up for at least the immediate future.”
His wife, Jackie, is a native of New Mexico, his children are here and don’t have plans to leave, either so Burgess says he expects to maintain his Pajarito Mountain ski pass.
“I’ve always enjoyed the ski hill here. It was something that attracted me to come here in the first place,” he said.
Technically Burgess will be on the job until the end of May but will still be an employee through November as he uses up unexpired leaves.
Burgess actually moved to New Mexico in 1994 to work for the National Park Service in Carlsbad.
“I led a prior life of crawling around underground and actually made that my vocation for a little while working for the Park Service, for an outdoors school where I taught caving. I was hired on with Eddy County as their Emergency Manager and worked for them for four years, acquired a few new hats and never got rid of the old ones. I continued to be Emergency Manager but also was given the task of Fire Marshal and then Administrative Services Director,” he said.
He said he got his skills going to a point that he was able to apply for a County Manager job in Grant County where he spent four years in Grant County.
“I actually got that job because I was one of the only people willing to apply for a position for a bankrupt county as it was at the time. They had $18,000 in the bank when they hired me and that was not even enough to make payroll for a two-week period. So that was kind of a unique experience that we had to go through to get the County back on its feet and subsequent to that I was able to work for the City of Carlsbad as their City Administrator for about six years, back in Eddy County, back in an area that I knew,” Burgess said, adding that obviously in Eddy County he worked with the Department of Energy with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
“I was the Emergency Manager for the County when the WIPP site opened and so I worked very heavily with DOE and got involved with some of the national level programs and organizations such as the Energy Community Alliance. I also got to travel to Washington, DC to work with our legislators on WIPP-related items, so when the opportunity came open in Los Alamos, I had some of that background and already had 14-15 years in the service when I came to Los Alamos and that was a big part of what I think enabled the Council to look at me as a potential candidate, having worked for cities and counties around the state specifically, but also for that DOE experience,” he said.
Burgess said it has been an interesting ride here in Los Alamos. He noted that the community is very engaged which meant the job itself is every active. One of his first memories from when he came to town was that it seemed like everybody that introduced themselves to me said they were a former councilor.
“There was a whole bunch of them. They probably were involved in the process but it seemed like there were a lot of people who over time had been involved with the County at some level. That gave me a good idea of the community and the level of involvement that folks anticipated,” he said.
On the weekend Burgess came to town to interview in 2011, the groundbreaking for the Municipal Building was taking place and he recalls that he had the had the benefit of walking down to the current site which was a vacant lot at the time because the former apartments had been razed and it was preparing for construction.
“I got to visit with several folks that were involved in that process – some of them councilors who had voted to proceed and some of them were councilors who were now addressing the issue as well as members of the public. It was really a neat experience,” he said.
One thing he did not know about Los Alamos when he applied for the position was about the existence of the ski hill.
“I had come up with my family for a long weekend anticipating that we might be successful but using the trip no less to look at local housing market and things like that. We gave ourselves an extra day to stay around and during the interview process I happened to be invited up to Ullrfest. That was just a really great introduction to the community because I saw some councilors up there enjoying the time and also got a good perspective on the types of events that were going on here. I appreciated those events. Who doesn’t appreciate a beer garden on the side of the mountain and some fall weather. It was really an interesting experience that weekend that told me that should they offer the job, we would be willing to move here and could find the things that we like around the area,” he said.
Burgess noted that his children both graduated from Los Alamos High School and gone off to college.
“It’s just been an interesting part of our lives that we spent here seeing them progress through that. We are happy that they are graduates of Los Alamos High School because they can carry that with them as they go forward,” he said.
Burgess said he came to work for Los Alamos County after the second big fire for the community.
“The Las Conchas Fire had gone through in 2011 and the memories of Cerro Grande were still here. I had a significant background in emergency management activities and I know that was another interest of the Council when they interviewed me,” he said. “It’s been my goal to prevent an evacuation of the community over the past 10 years. I’ve been successful so far. We’ve heard the governor has already declared a drought emergency this year and we know that we’ve got really dry times, but I’m hopeful I can maintain that record.”
He noted that the County encountered some other declared disasters during my tenure.
“We had a record snowstorm that was a disaster declaration. We had a record rain and flooding. I remember we were interviewing our current police chief on the day that all that rain came through. Not to mention we got a bomb cyclone as well, a declared disaster for the state and most recently obviously this pandemic that has turned everything on its head,” Burgess said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I did not anticipate that I would be spending my last year in this position working from home and not interacting with the community face to face nor even my employees on a regular basis. That’s been a very interesting time and something that has shaped this last 10 years and obviously all of our lives that have lived here in the community.”
Burgess recalled that when he first came to town, the Los Alamos Monitor printed newspaper used to conduct surveys and had conducted one such survey at the time he accepted the County Manager’s position.
“I know we all miss that business and are disappointed it’s not here anymore, but I do take certain solace in the fact that when I had been offered the position, they did surveys at the time. And coming to a community and bring your family and then opening the newspaper and seeing a survey on how long you’d last was quite an interesting position to be in,” he said. “Not only that but the survey included a finite amount of time! There wasn’t an open-ended potential answer. You had three options – one to six months, I didn’t really like that one, six months to three years, or three to five years. Those were the only options for my survival”
Burgess said when he went online to see what the local community thought about his odds, the six months to three years option was the winning post.
“This pre-dated a lot of the cookies and everything, because I went in there and voted about five times for myself and for the five year time frame, but still the end result was that the prediction was I wouldn’t make it past three years if I even made that,” he said. “To sit here on the other side – I mean no disrespect for the Monitor – but to still be sitting here today is quite an accomplishment in its own right given that inauspicious kind of start.”
Burgess said his time in Los Alamos and the things he has been involved in have been very interesting.
“I will say the community is unique but the problems are similar amongst all communities. Everybody has concerns about housing, about low income issues, about keeping the streets clean, about whether or not the water turns on when the faucet is opened. Those basic issues are endemic to all communities and my experience with others in the state I think really assisted in that fact,” he said.
One of the biggest things Burgess noticed when he came to Los Alamos County was that most of the processes were adaptations of LANL processes.
“Everything from budget to personnel to you name it, and I would say over the last 10 years, especially having had the background that I did in other communities throughout the state, enabled us to take what we had, which worked, but bring it more in line with standard practice for local governments throughout the state. If anything I think I was able to bring that to the community during my time here,” he said.
Burgess noted that getting to go to Russia on a paid trip to visit Los Alamos’ sister city personnel in Sarov was quite an experience, one he never anticipated having as a local government manager.
“I think the Smith’s Marketplace project was one of the most impactful projects we’ve been able to work on while I’ve been here, because just today everybody thinks about that and forgets about our former grocery store, at least those who moved to the community in the last six or seven years and never knew of the size constraints and other issues that were associated with the old store,” he said. “We turned around the leakage ratio for the community. Many of our residents were going to Santa Fe, Espanola or elsewhere to purchase groceries or other specific types of needs. I know Pampers was a big discussion during that time as far as families and their needs and the inability to obtain those things here.”
He said these days, many people who work at the Lab and live in those same communities stop at our Smith’s before they drive home.
“That fact has not only brought in more money to the community but just made it a better place to live and it’s been very impactful on how we view our day-to-day lives,” Burgess said.
Something else he is proud of is that the County was able as a group effort to secure gross receipts taxes for the County organization as the management of the Lab changed over.
“There was a potential – in fact it was more than a potential – it was a statement made to me – when they sent a person from Washington, DC to sit in my office. I spoke to the director of the NNSA about the tax structure. They told me they were pretty interested in it themselves, but unfortunately I realized when they sent someone to listen with me while I listened to the NNSA administrators, it’s probably not going to be a good answer,” Burgess said. “When Triad was actually awarded the contract, we were told that they were going to be a nonprofit. I was told by the NNSA administrator that that was how they organized themselves. I didn’t necessarily agree with that having read their filings in Delaware but we nevertheless had been to the legislature the year prior trying to ensure that national laboratories operating in the state would remain taxable”.
Of the various national laboratories around the U.S. all were for profit, Burgess said, and they were all paying taxes to their local municipality and so the case was such that the County wanted to maintain that situation.
“We knew that the federal didn’t want to go back to specific earmarks to make sure communities had the necessary monies to operate but instead that it’s just a normal part of business and that as the Laboratory operator they would pay gross receipts taxes to cover their needs just like every other business in town. And it was a success with many different people involved – everywhere from Washington, DC to the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, that ultimately that law did get passed and we have been able to maintain our gross receipts for the community that enables the County to provide a high level of service for the community and to build new facilities for us to enjoy. That’s one I will definitely remember I think as a moment that I’m certainly proud of in my tenure here,” Burgess said.
When Burgess started in public service with the federal government, he never knew who his ultimate boss was because they were in Washington, DC and he found that a frustrating situation to be in. He said he ultimately went towards local government only to find out that his first interview for an emergency management position was in front of 11 different people, all at the same time.
“I had never been in that situation myself, and it was a great introduction to what I would do for the rest of my career for sure, because in my position I’ve got seven bosses as it is right now. During my tenure here, I’ve had a minimum of six different configurations of that Council as well, because every two years we have new elections and there’s a certain number, at least in my experience here, that have changed. And they only act as a group when they are relating to the County Manager position,” he said. “I’ve had six different specific bosses while I’ve been here. I’ve had to get to know a new group of people every two years but even then there have been onesies and twosies that have resigned for a variety of reasons over that time, so truly the configuration of bosses has been even more than that.”
Burgess has found the position interesting to work in because of all that interaction and as one can imagine, the direction changes involved with each different group of councilors.
“There are nuances to what they may want to do and those of us on the staff side are often looking in a long-term type of perspective and elected officials are somewhat shorter than that because they have four-year terms that they’re trying to accomplish things within. That certainly has been an influence on my time here and will be one for whoever fills this position going forward,” he said.
As Burgess announced his plans to retire well in advance, he is in the unique situation of retiring for five to six months. He informed Council in December of his intention to retire in June to give them time to prepare. The search process for his replacement is underway but Burgess is dubious that the position will be filled before he leaves in June.
“Part of the reason I submitted my notice so early is that it took five months from when I applied for this position for me to actually be sitting in the chair, so I tried to gauge that similarly in my information provided to Council,” he said.
He feels he is leaving the County in a very stable condition staff-wise as when he was hired, only two of his direct reports were in full-time positions – the police chief and the fire chief. Every other director for the county was in some sort of acting position because there had been so much turnover prior to the point at which he was hired, he said.
“That was a benefit to me to be able to come in and actually select and create a new team of people but it was a difficult situation for the County to actually maintain its charted course when different people were in different positions over the course of about six months and many people changed hands,” Burgess said. “Something I’m proud of is that not only have I been able to hire people into all those positions and for the most part people stayed with me for the duration of that time frame. We haven’t had a lot of turnover in our director-level positions. We had two retirements which were anticipated and I had one director who left to work for Park City and four years later returned to Los Alamos County. I took that as another feather in the hat as well.”
Having that amount of stability, he said he feels very comfortable walking out the door knowing that those folks will still be with the County and knowing they will continue to lead and provide good services for the community.
Watch the Los Alamos Reporter for more coverage of Burgess’s retirement.