Letter To The Editor: Clarification Of Rec Bond Funding Options

By Edward Birnbaum
Los Alamos
I attended Tuesday’s “Lunch With A Leader” at Mesa Public Library in which the proponents and opponents of the $20 million Recreation Bond (deadline to vote: Tuesday, May 23) presented their arguments for and against and answered questions. My thanks to Karyl Ann Armbruster and the League of Women Voters for arranging this opportunity to hear from both sides.

Both sides seemed to agree that the improvements and new recreational facilities proposed would benefit many children and adults in the community. Several of the proponents emphasized how important the Rec Center, ball fields and recreational pool would be for children in the community.

I heard three arguments against the bond issue. The primary one, and most obvious is the cost, and if people are not willing to increase their property taxes to fund the bond, for whatever reason, then they should vote against the bond issue. However, aside from cost, opponents raised two other issues:

  • Why have the proponents not included a ‘private-public partnership’ as part of the Rec Bond process; and
  • Why has no one made any ‘fundraising’ efforts to reduce the cost to the taxpayers?

In order to get some background on these issues I spoke with both Linda Daly, CEO of the YMCA, and Heather McClenahan, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Historical Society (LAHS). Both provided me with relevant information, but neither expressed any opinion on the Rec Bond.

Regarding the idea of a ‘private-public partnership’, clearly this model is already in place for the Teen Center where the YMCA operates the facilities under contract from the County. Similarly, PEEC operates the Nature Center and LAHS operates the Los Alamos History Museum (LAHM) on behalf of the County.

The County has had discussions with the YMCA about how this would happen and they submitted an RFI, but I doubt that the County is in a position to set up a contract with the YMCA as part of the Rec Bond. If the Rec Bond is passed, then I assume an RFP would be issued by the County allowing ALL those interested to submit a proposal to operate the Rec Center. It is probably not appropriate (or legal) to single out the YMCA in the bonding document.

However, some of the language used in talking about a ‘private-public partnership’ makes it sound like the private partner would be contributing dollars toward the construction and or dollars toward the operation of the Rec Center. This is not the case. There might be savings associated with using a private contractor to operate the facility, but the YMCA is NOT in a position to contribute dollars toward building or operating the facility. They have enough on their plate running the Y and paying off the mortgage on their current facility, which is in excess of a million dollars.

Fundraising also sounds like a logical approach to reducing the cost to the taxpayer. However, Los Alamos does not have a history of raising the kind of money needed for a broad community project such as the Rec Center. The YMCA has run capital campaigns to support construction and expansion of the YMCA building, but the dollar amount raised fell far short of the total need.  Hence the need for a million dollar plus mortgage.

The other major fundraising organization in town, excluding churches and organizations focused on a specific membership group, is the Los Alamos Historical Society. The LAHS has raised more than four million dollars towards the renovation and operation of the LAHM and the other buildings connected to the Museum. However, about 20 percent of these funds have come from outside Los Alamos, which is not likely to be a source of funding for the Rec Center or the other recreational projects, and another 30 percent is in the form of estate gifts, which will not be available for years. That approach works for the Museum, but it would not work, e.g., for building the Rec Center or fixing the golf course. In addition, it took roughly 3.5 years to raise these funds.

Finally, I would like to address the Hobbs Rec Center, which has been put forth by opponents of the Rec Bond as a model for Los Alamos. The Hobbs Rec Center budget is $63.5 million. Of that, $27.5 million is coming from the Maddox Foundation, a private foundation founded in 1963 to serve the residents of southeastern New Mexico. One can argue that Los Alamos should have such a foundation, but we don’t. It would be great if one or more individuals in or outside Los Alamos County would start such a foundation with a gift of $10 million or more, but that’s not likely to be a funding model for the proposed Rec Center or any other project in the near future.

The remaining funds for the Hobbs Center are coming from the General Fund of the City of Hobbs ($25 million), a New Mexico Junior College G.O. Bond ($5 million), a New Mexico Junior College mill levy assessment ($5 million) and Hobbs Municipal School District funds ($1 million). All of these funds were generated via taxation in some form. So if we followed this model, we would need the LA Schools and UNM-LA to kick in funds for the Rec Center by going to the voters for additional bonding or another mill levy. I don’t see how this approach gets us any closer to reducing costs to the taxpayer.

So the bottom line is, if you want these five recreational projects to go forward in the near future to be available for you, your children, your grandchildren and your parents, the only likely path of success is to vote for the Rec Bond. Voting against the bond will leave us with the $13.6 million in CIP funds, which could be used for recreational projects, but then we will be back in the mosh pit with every group in Los Alamos competing against every other group for the recreation project of their choice, and we are most likely to wind up with nothing.