BY MAIRE O’NEILL
If you ask Los Alamos County residents whether or not they know what “Progress Through Partnering” is, you can be pretty sure they won’t know what you’re talking about. It came up during the Los Alamos County Council budget hearings in April and it looks like it will be back on the Council agenda Aug. 10 under an item called “Discussion of Regional Capital Projects Fund”.
The fund was established around 2010 and until now has generally been spent on programs like the North Central Regional Transportation District which provides the “blue bus” service throughout the region, the Regional Development Corporation, which is a private non-profit 501(c) 3 organization dedicated to improving economic development in the region, and the now defunct Regional Coalition of LANL Communities. The fund has fluctuated over the years and had leveled out at some $600,000 until the FY2020 budget when it jumped by $900,000 to $1.5 million. During this year’s budget hearings, former county manager Harry Burgess, when asked about the reason for the increase to the PTP fund, said that the County was considering establishing a fund to assist other communities in the region with capital projects by providing matching funds for grants they were pursuing. He said the thought was that the Progress Through Partnering Fund could be that match.
The question at the heart of Progress Through Partnering is how, and to what extent, Los Alamos County can help neighboring communities and it seems that question has yet to be answered.
In February 2020, Councilor David Izraelevitz began working to establish a fund that would “expand the positive, permanent impact of Los Alamos County as a good neighbor to surrounding communities and to promote communication, interaction and collaboration”. The idea was to establish a fund that would be managed like a long-term investment fund with income from the fund to be allocated to members of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities for local capital projects as determined and reviewed by the RCLC board. At the time, Izraelevitz said the proposal was $500,000 to $1 million a year and that it obviously would be at the discretion of current and future Councils. He suggested having a budget “add-on” that would be discussed at budget time to decide how much to add or how much the additional increment should be. He acknowledged that formal agreements would be needed to make sure the funds were processed appropriately. Council did not vote on the proposal but agreed to allow Izraelevitz to introduce the idea to the RCLC board. The RCLC voted to have its legal counsel work with the Los Alamos County Attorney to devise a memorandum of agreement, but since then, the RCLC has dissolved and there was no further discussion of “the fund” until the April 2021 budget hearings.
During those April hearings, Councilor David Reagor questioned the amount of money to be allocated to the fund and was told by Burgess that the original $900,000 was never intended to be the only monies available. Council moved forward adding an additional $1.5 million to the PTP fund, still without a plan on paper as to how the fund would operate. Meanwhile, the RCLC was on its last leg and no mechanism was in place for management of the fund.
Fast forward to the May 25 Council meeting, with no agenda item on the PTP fund, Councilor Sara Scott announced that she and Izraelevitz had a discussion with Monica Abeita, executive director for the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District regarding “the expanded regional Progress Through Partnering effort” Scott and Councilor Sean Williams are the two Council liaisons to the NCNMEDD along with former county manager Burgess and Jim Hall, who serves as a citizen representative. Williams has since said that although he is one of the appointed liaisons to the NCNMEDD, he was not notified of Scott’s and Izraelevitz’s meeting with Abeita in advance. Council Chair Randall Ryti and Vice Chair James Robinson have indicated they also did not know about the meeting in advance.
Scott told Council that it was a preliminary discussion “thinking that there might be a fit with them (NCNMEDD) to supporting us in administering income derived from this fund”.
“And really the bottom line was just to see if there was any interest in discussing that kind of a partnership further. It sounds like the answer is yes, there’s an interest in discussing it, so…I’ve been invited to the executive board of NCNMEDD this coming Friday just to kind of talk about what this is and thoughts about should we have further discussions about whether this might make sense for both them and us,” Scott said.
Chair Ryti said it sounded like Council needed a presentation on the “Regional Initiative Fund.” Council still has not discussed the fund under an agenda item.
Councilors Scott and Izraelevitz met in June with the NCNMEDD executive committee where they both spoke. Councilor Williams again was not present.
Councilor Scott explained to the executive committee that “the County Council as well as broader Los Alamos County really value partnering with our Northern New Mexico neighbors.” She explained the establishment of the PTP fund noting that the Council is a few years into it.
“Again the idea is we put some money in and looking ahead to funds that would be generated by how those are invested, we’re looking at how we might administer those profits from the investment. The North Central New Mexico Economic Development District of course came to mind with the goal of economic development and supporting quality of life issues, which are central to the mission. We realize as we move forward on this, and whoever we partner with, to administer these funds, put out calls for proposals and things like that, there’s a lot of work that would need to be done in terms of establishing policies, procedures, other frameworks, etc. on a path towards actual implementation for an initiative like this,” Scott said.
“We wanted to reach out right now to see if there is interest from NCNMEDD in pursuing this conversation as to whether we could work together in the administration of these profits to invest in economic development/quality of life issues that would have long-term impact in the region and work together to put this option out there as another way to advance regional economic development together.”
Scott did not clarify that the “we” did not mean the full Council.
“We kind of just wanted to find out – we’re interested in moving forward with this and if there is an interest in having more specific discussions with NCNMEDD. How would it? How could it? How could we work together to invest these funds in these important issues?” she said.
Councilor Izraelevitz said he wanted to give the executive committee an idea of the scale involved.
“We have put aside in prior years, and again we’re trying to find a vehicle to do this, about $900,000 so that being accumulated over several years, if you start drawing income from that, plus there’s interest at least from the current Council to supplement that in the early years because we’re not going to have that income at that point This could be hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be used, as Councilor Scott said, to matching funds or to design or even construction of projects in the area. We really need to have a regional insight into what are the needs in the larger area are so that’s why we want to partner with an organization like yours that already has a good pulse on what projects might really be impactful either in long-term economic investment or quality of life issues which of course have an economic development component to them because it may retain our youth to stay in our area or attract new businesses or things like that.”
Izraelevitz said it’s all part of the package.
“We understand that this is something that might be of interest and we’re trying to see if there is interest in helping us administer this and find appropriate projects and also do the due diligence about completion of projects and so forth…. Of course this is fluid and we’re looking forward to your feedback,” he said.
Executive director Abeita said she and the organization were honored that Scott and Izraelevitz would think of them.
“Obviously, the investments you all make in the region are really wonderful because you share revenue with neighboring communities which is really great. I think there are some really good opportunities here,” she said.
Abeita noted that the County is looking for an entity to administer the fund which she said would mean receiving applications, vetting applications and making recommendations back to the County.
“So we talked about all of that. I explained that this is a little outside of the things that we outlined in our fee for service model. We had some specific things in there like Community Development Block Grants, EDA admin and things like that. This is a little outside of the box but nonetheless, I think it’s something we could do, in working out a contract with the County, and we just wanted to get [NCNMEDD Executive Committee’s] feedback and make sure everyone was excited about this opportunity and then I would start working with Los Alamos County unless there were any concerns on scoping this out, what is the work, do we need to contract or hire a part-time person to work on this, those types of details. But first we wanted to get your thoughts on the whole project,” Abeita said.
She said one thing she talked about with Scott and Izraelevitz was that NCNMEDD wanted to make sure the decision making around the fund remained with Los Alamos County, because NCNMEDD is an entity that represents every community in their region.
“While we can make recommendations based on some policies that we put together, we think that the decision-making authority should be at Los Alamos County level. Picking one local government over another in our district would put us in an odd position, especially because we have board members representing those local governments. But the staff here at NCNMEDD could certainly be the clearing house, just like we do for loan applications, for example,” Abeita said.
Later in June, Councilor Scott reported to fellow councilors that Abeita is going to consider some options and may have some questions for herself or Councilor Izraelevitz.
“We’ll come back with some thought and ideas and those of course will be presented to Council. Certainly a lot of work to do in terms of policy and administration but this is kind of a first step at looking at one possible option,” Scott said.
The “Regional Capital Projects Fund” was originally on the County Council agenda for July 27 but has now been pushed back to Aug. 10 when it will be presented by Councilor Izraelevitz. There are a number of questions that could be answered at the Aug. 10 meeting, including: why two councilors chose to take the fund to the NCNMEDD for discussion prior to a consensus from the full County Council; how much money will actually be earned by the fund and how soon funds could be distributed; and why the County would need to use an outside entity to run the funds through instead of administering the funds themselves. The County was the fiscal agent for the RCLC from its inception to its dissolution. There has also been no declaration on the counties or other government entities eligible to receive funds from Los Alamos County. In addition to Los Alamos County, RCLC members were: Rio Arriba County, Santa Fe County, Taos County, the City of Santa Fe, the City of Espanola and the City of Taos, as well as Ohkay Owingeh and Jemez Pueblos. NCNMEDD on the other hand is the regional Council of Governments for local governments in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Taos, Colfax, Mora, San Miguel, Sandoval and Los Alamos Counties.