Councilor Column: About Our Incorporated County

Los Alamos County Councilor

What aspect of Los Alamos County makes us different from the city of Santa Fe and the city of Albuquerque, yet similar to the cities of San Francisco, Nashville, Denver, Philadelphia and Anchorage?

The cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque reside on a portion of Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties, but San Francisco, and the rest of the list are combined city-counties, as is Los Alamos County. We are unique  in this respect in New Mexico, so when I go around the state and mention that I am a Los Alamos County councilor, my fellow office holders look at me funny. They are familiar with county commissioners and city councilors, but what is a county councilor? Yet, while we are unique in New Mexico, there are many examples of city-counties across the U.S.

But first, let’s discuss what is a county vs. a city. In the U.S. a county (or parish in Louisiana, borough in Alaska) is a political and geographic subdivision of the state. Thus, no matter where you are in NM, you stand inside a county.  Each county is permitted to collect taxes for county functions, such as county roads, a county jail, and other functions that are needed across a county, even in rural areas. Interestingly, some states have abolished counties as a governmental unit, and all the above functions are handled by the state government.

A city, however, is a corporation composed of the citizens residing in a certain area that is given some rights for self-governance by the state. Typically, this is because this area has urbanized to the extent that its citizens want additional governmental functions, with the consequent additional city taxes. The geographic area of a city does not have to have any relation to county boundaries. The city of Santa Fe is a municipal (fancy word for city) corporation wholly within Santa Fe County, but some cities span multiple counties. One famous example is New York City, which has essentially engulfed five counties. An example closer to home is the city of Espanola, where part of Espanola sits in Santa Fe County, and part of it sits in Rio Arriba County. While a city can span multiple counties, it cannot span multiple states, because it is an individual state that recognizes and permits the city to organize. If a city “spills” into another state, a new city emerges. This results, for example, in two Kansas Cities, one in Missouri and the other in, well, you know where.

In 1949, pieces of Sandoval and Santa Fe counties were combined to form Los Alamos County. From that year until 1968, there was no city of Los Alamos, just the county. There was a good reason for this.the Atomic Energy Commission took care of most local city functions, similar to how an Army base works.

While the city of Espanola has the (I think) unique quality in NM that it spans two counties, the city of Los Alamos has the unique quality that it has the exact same footprint as the same-named county. This came to be after an amendment to the NM Constitution passed, and Los Alamos was given the permission to become an incorporated county, i.e. a city and a county at the same time. In 1968 we exercised this authority when we voted in our County Charter, to become, not just the County of Los Alamos, but the Incorporated County of Los Alamos.