All eight of the candidates for County Council attended Los Alamos Kiwanis Oct. 2 to present their views on three important questions.
The eight are Democrats David Izraelevitz, James N. Robinson, Randall T. Ryti, and Sara C. Scott; Libertarian Helen M. Milenski; and Republicans Brady W. Burke, Dawn C. Trujillo Voss and John L. Bliss.
Rules and Questions
The questions, provided to the candidates in advance, were:
1) What are your views on the Los Alamos County Sheriff’s Department, its budget, its responsibilities, and its relationship with the County Council?
2) How should the council handle the contract turnover at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the questions about the new contractor’s tax responsibilities to the county?
3) And what do you see as the single biggest issue facing the county, and how would you deal with it?
Kiwanis drew names to determine the order in which the candidates would speak. Each candidate had a total of four minutes to speak, answering all of the questions within that time.
When all eight had answered the questions, Kiwanis members had a brief opportunity to ask them other questions, and even after the meeting had ended, both candidates and their potential incumbents lingered to continue their discussions.
In answering Question 1, Izraelevitz, the only incumbent among the eight, said he wasn’t present for the votes that reduced the Sheriff’s Department’s budget and responsibilities, but he voted yes when the council considered whether to put to the voters the issue of whether the department should be abolished. He said he felt that because the council had removed most of the department’s responsibilities, the public should consider whether the department should be eliminated.
Izraelevitz said it seemed to him that Los Alamos County is incorporated for the express purpose of doing things efficiently. (Questions had been raised about whether it is efficient to have both a Police Department and a Sheriff’s Department in the county.)
He noted that for many years, the Sheriff’s Department had a cooperative approach to the county, the council, and the police.
He said the Sheriff’s Department has no enforcement duties. It has worked instead in public safety and education.
The public, however, voted to retain the Sheriff’s Department.
As it stands now, he said, once the questions in court are answered, if the Sheriff’s Department continues to exist, then when questions on its budget and responsibilities arise, “The (County) Charter rules.”
Turning to Question 2, Izraelevitz said that Los Alamos County and TRIAD, the new management team for Los Alamos National Laboratory, should be on the same team. The community should strive to provide an environment “that attracts the best and the brightest to Los Alamos.”
The council must fight hard to continue to receive gross receipts taxes from the laboratory, he said, reaching out to the State of New Mexico and the Internal Revenue Service to close what he considers a huge loophole. If that approach doesn’t work, he said, then the council will have to cut spending.
In answer to Question 3, he said that the council must make the county an asset to the laboratory, providing excellent schools, adequate housing for all, and increased financial support from tourism.
In answer to Question No. 1, Burke said, “I voted (in the public election) to retain the Sheriff’s Department. I assumed (that if the public voted to retain the department) things would remain as they were.”
However, he said, the council cut funding for the department, and, “Others turned it into a little bit of a fray.”
“I’m in favor of putting the Sheriff’s Department back the way it was before all this started,” he concluded.
Responding to Questions 2, Burke said that he finds it “nearsighted” to contend that taxing the lab is the only way to meet county needs.
“We need to negotiate with TRIAD,” he said, “to convince them that investing in the community is good for them as well as for us.”
His answer to Question 3 was that the biggest problem the county is facing right now is the division between the county staff and the council (on one side) and the Sheriff’s Department and the voters on the other side.
Responding to Question 1, Robinson said that he voted (in the public election) to eliminate the office of sheriff because he didn’t believe the county needed to have two law-enforcement agencies.
However, when the results came in, the voters had said they wanted to keep the Sheriff’s Department.
As a result, he said, he now believes that the council should reach out to the person who is elected sheriff and start establishing a relationship, working out a list of duties, and providing an appropriate budget for the department.
Question 2? Robinson said he appreciates the current council’s effort to keep gross receipts taxes flowing in from the laboratory. “It takes up so much of our space,” he said, and places demands on us as well.
Building a good relationship with TRIAD is “key,” he said.
Turning to Question 3, he said, “We have a county that was built relatively quickly a long time ago.” As a result, everything from school buildings to water lines is wearing out—at about the same time. It is vital, he said, that we keep up with necessary repairs and replacements.
Dealing with the first question, Scott said, “The community voted NOT to abolish the office of sheriff. I support that.”
She said the Sheriff’s office should handle the registration of sex offenders and serve notices. Funding should be provided at the appropriate level for those tasks.
In response to Question 2, she said the contract turnover “is an opportunity to invigorate the county-laboratory relationship.” Economic development and education are among the issues that could be discussed in such a relationship.
The county must make certain of its long-term tax standing, she said.
In the meantime, the county should identify options for reducing costs, talk with the federal authorities about the possibility of assistance payments for Los Alamos County, and talk with the state about ways it might assist the county.
Turning to Question 3, Scott said the “big challenge” facing Los Alamos County is housing. She proposed a housing study that would cover the need for housing, the types of housing needed, and what Los Alamos County can do to accommodate potential developers.
She would also like to see the county explore redevelopment possibilities.
In response to Question 1, Ryti said, “I support having a sheriff.”
The roles and responsibilities of the office must be defined, he said, and the council should work with the person the community elects as sheriff to provide appropriate funding for the department.
Responding to Question 2, he said that the council must continue to communicate to TRIAD just what is funded by the taxes the lab is being asked to pay. Provision of this information amounts to “an important education for them,” he said.
He added that TRIAD might come to understand the importance of the tax money in providing some amenities and
services that are important for recruiting good employees.
At the same time, the county should discuss a possible reduction in taxes and seek ways to prioritize its spending. It is important, he said, that the county know “what we’re spending money on and why.”
In answering Question 3, he said that he has learned, while campaigning door-to- door, that for people new to the community, a perceived lack of housing is an important issue.
“I think that housing is an important issue,” he said, noting that University of New Mexico-Los Alamos students are among those who need local housing.
He commented that, “redevelopment of vacant properties” might produce good opportunities for housing.
Responding to Question 1, Milenski commented that the Sheriff’s Department has existed “for decades.” Only recently has its existence become “contentious.” She said she voted to keep the position of sheriff.
The person elected sheriff, she said, must honor the court’s decisions on the duties of the office, and the council must fund the position accordingly.
Answering Question 2, she said, “We should be cutting our spending back” regardless of the outcome of the debate about the laboratory and gross receipts taxes. The county must “reprioritize, regardless of what we get and when we get it,” she said.
In answering Question 3, she said, “We grow or we die.”
“We are a small town,” she said. She grew up in Los Alamos, and she loves is small-town feeling, but the lab plans to expand, and, “We need to respond.”
She noted the vacant buildings and properties in town and said that perhaps the county should “levy a fee for leaving a property vacant” for more than a specified period of time. Such a fee might increase the likelihood that owners would reduce rents and attract new tenants, she said.
Housing is a big issue, she said, and so is “aging infrastructure.” She noted that growth affects infrastructure. The more people, the more stress on old infrastructure, she said.
She also called for diversity in business.
In answering Question 1, Bliss pointed out that both the council and the Sheriff’s Department will have new people in office as of Jan. 1, and new people might be able to work out a new relationship.
“It’s clear that the county wants a sheriff,” he said.
There should be “a conversation” about the sheriff’s role, he said, and, “The funding needs to follow.”
In answering Question 2, Bliss said that if the county doesn’t succeed in getting the tax income it is hoping to preserve, it will have to cut costs—perhaps
including some costs related to responsibilities at the laboratory, notably fire protection and police assistance.
“I believe they understand,” he said, “that we’re linked at the hip.”
He answered Question 3 by saying that what the county needs most is “leadership.” Look back over the last 20 years, he said, and, “You see these same issues” coming up over and over again— housing, economic development, etc.
“Leadership is the problem,” he said. “The council needs to build agreement on a way forward, and then go to the community and say, ‘This is what we need to do.’”
He also commented, “We’re going to grow … but people don’t want to lose the community feel.”
In commenting on the Sheriff’s Department (Question 1), Trujillo Voss said, “It’s been discussed; it’s been voted on.”
She voted to keep the sheriff. She commented, “There are very strong feelings….”
She believes that, “We need to have a check and balance” in local law enforcement. The Los Alamos Police Department works for county government, she said. We need a sheriff who is elected by the people.
Once the election is over, she said, the council and the Sheriff’s Department can sit down together and work out a way to
move forward. They must not “stay stuck.”
In answer to Question 2, she said that people were asking the same questions about the laboratory and gross receipts taxes in 2012. We must take the question seriously, she said, and discuss how to “become independent of gross receipts tax.”
“Let’s face it,” she said, “It could go away.”
Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee had some of these same problems (vacant properties, etc.), she said, but now, “They’ve been revitalized.”
She said that on one point at least, she agrees with Bliss: “Like John said, it comes down to leadership.”
In response to Question 3, she said, “We need to look at our young people” and their needs. Not all of them want to go to college, she said. Some need vocational education.
Questions and Answers
Two major questions were raised in the last 10 minutes of the Kiwanis meeting.
The first questioner said the loss of taxes from the laboratory could mean a loss of 20% of the county’s income. He noted that Milenski wanted to cut the budget, and he asked her just how she would approach the need for such a large cut.
Milenski said she would “take a close look at what has expanded since we got the gross receipts tax.” She said she might put a halt to some of the new
projects that the county has taken on — especially if they were taken on without knowing what they would require in money for operations and maintenance.
The second question from the floor concerned locating a bicycle flow trail in Bayo Canyon.
The equestrian community—which has direct access to Bayo Canyon from the North Mesa Stables Area, and uses the canyon trail not only for frequent rides but also as the only direct route to many other trails—has responded with a petition opposing the idea for a bicycle flow trail in Bayo. Many of the petition signers believe that establishment of the flow trail would block horses from the canyon and leave horse owners locked into the Stables Area with nowhere to go.
One Kiwanis member asked for a definition of a “bicycle flow trail.” Those who answered the question mentioned the need for a trail with limited “ups and downs.” They also said it would be a place for family biking. However, some people in the room noted that the Bayo Canyon Trail is anything but flat. They also said that horses are afraid of bicycles.
Scott said that as she understands the issue, eight options were originally suggested for the bicycle flow trail, and the list has now been trimmed to four. She said she believes that safety will be a major consideration as discussion of a site continues. The “footprint” of the canyon, whether a bike trail there would “fit in with the rest of our trail system,” and the cost of the proposal all must be considered before the proposal should be considered final, she said.
Burke said, “I’m opposed.” Establishing a bicycle flow trail would amount to “adding another expenditure,” he said. “We’re creating a problem where there isn’t one … It should be left the way it is.”
Izraelevitz said that no one in an official position has ever said that horses would be banned from Bayo Canyon if the bicycle flow trail moved forward. That belief is a serious misconception, he said. (And two other candidates, Ryti and Robinson, agreed with him in a discussion after the formal meeting ended). Izraelevitz said he is sure that both safety and cost will be considered as discussion of a possible bicycle flow trail site continues.