Gibson: County Council Puts Government Before Citizens

Former County Councilor

Our County Council last week again demonstrated that it works more for the county government than the citizens it is elected to represent.

At its regular meeting, Council adopted its Federal Legislative Agenda to guide is delegation in discussions in Washington this week and throughout the year. The very first item is “a for-profit institution must be given priority for managing LANL.”

The majority of the county government’s revenue comes from gross receipts taxes (GRT) on the for-profit LANS. A non-profit manager would pay no GRT.   

There was nothing in the supporting text or Council’s discussion that suggested any reason that a for-profit contractor would be better for the nation, the Lab, its people, or the community as a whole. Only Councilor Henderson and perhaps Councilor Sheehey seemed to have any reservation about for-profit advocacy, but they joined the unanimous vote to approve.

Few would claim that the Lab has been more productive under for-profit LANS than its non-profit pre-2006 predecessor, UC. How fault should be apportioned among this particular management team, the for-profit business model, or DOE’s bureaucratic oversight is debatable. In any case, there is no evidence in our experience to suggest a for-profit contractor is better for the Lab and its people.

What is most important is that LANL gets the best possible contractor. That would serve the nation and community best and should be Council’s top concern.

Council will say that our county government won’t be able to provide a “high level of services” if its revenues fall drastically. Didn’t the county provide good services for decades before 2006? Some services (snow removal comes to mind) were better.        

True before-and-after comparisons of real fiscal effects are complicated by many factors, e.g., changes in LANL subcontracting and construction, the Fire Department cost split with DOE, facility maintenance standards, etc. 

The bottom line is our county government long lived on far less and could again. Getting back there would require some serious priority-setting, performance accountability, and decision-making – which is probably what really scares Council.

This is certainly not the only council to put government priorities ahead of citizen needs and wants. In addition to the greatly increased operating budget, this is evident in capital expenditures over the past decade. First, the county government spent extravagantly on oversized, inefficient new buildings for itself. Only then did it consider (politically popular) amenities for the community. Meanwhile, it claims it has no money for essential modern infrastructure such as broadband. These are exactly backwards.

The county government unwittingly revealed its true orientation in 2009. As a councilor, I was assigned to join a working group developing what was eventually called the “Economic Vitality Strategic Plan.” A draft that had percolated for a couple years said, “The purpose of a local economy is to provide tax revenues to the local government.” I got that appalling statement changed immediately. But actions since then suggest it remains the county’s operative philosophy.

Council’s support for a LANL contracting model that benefits the county government without even considering the broader best interests of the Lab, the community as a whole, and the nation shows clearly that its government-centric philosophy remains active.

Governments should work for their citizens, not vice versa.