By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
Despite all the challenges Los Alamos County has and is facing due to the pandemic, it is entering Fiscal Year 2022 in strong financial shape.
“Unlike many other communities we have fared well during the pandemic,” County Manager Harry Burgess said. “This is largely due to budget increases at the laboratory.”
He explained that Los Alamos National Laboratory’s expenditures grew to $3 billion for the present fiscal year and is anticipated to grow again to $3.7 billion for the following year.
“Both of these indicate growth over the prior years, and have contributed to our positive revenue situation,” Burgess said.
He added that while the FY2021 budget addressed the pandemic, the FY2022 budget focuses on reopening.
“The focus here is back to more open operations and that’s what we built into this budget in anticipation for that,” Burgess said.
As a result, the Los Alamos County Council will consider the proposed $237 million budget April 19-20 and if needed, April 26-27.
Budget and Performance Manager Karen Kendall said all the budget hearings will be conducted via Zoom. The public is invited to make comments at the beginning of each hearing, or they can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Emailed comments will not be read aloud, but will be seen by Council, she said.
Regarding the proposed $237 million budget, Kendall said the FY22 is $2.6 million lower than the prior year’s adopted budget. Furthermore, she said the County’s general fund expenditures are projected to total $65.4 million, which is $254,000 below the prior year’s budget.
Burgess said the FY2022 budget is less than FY2021 due to timing. Last year, four recreational capital improvement projects were included in the budget, he explained.
The expenditures in the FY2022 budget include a 3 percent salary increase, Kendall said, as well as a 5 percent increase for medical premiums. She said these increases are offset by the removal of $2.2 million in one-time budget options from the prior year.
Additionally, Kendall said the FY22 budget proposes four new FTE positions, which are lifeguards for the multi-generational pool. As far as the FY22 general fund revenues, she said it is budgeted at $84 million, which is $9.7 million higher than the prior year. Kendall also noted that the council will be presented with budget options for its consideration, which would be additional budgeted expenditures. The budget options for consideration total $7.8 million.
Burgess said the budget options are ranked and include filling staff positions that will become vacant due to retirements. He explained the hope is to hire new personnel for positions such as the County Manager and the Budget and Performance Manager before current staff members leave so the new hires can train with them. Another budget option proposes purchasing bear-proof roll carts for every resident and bear-resistant dumpsters for commercial buildings. Burgess said the roll carts are projected to cost $1.7 million and the dumpsters would cost $650,000.
The largest budget option is $2.5 million for a road improvement project on Arkansas Street between 33rd and 34th Streets. Burgess said this project would align with a utility project that the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is anticipating.
Regarding DPU, Kendall said the joint utilities fund proposed expenditure budget is $84.4 million, which is $1.6 million less than the prior year. She pointed out that DPU has capital improvement projects totaling $19.9 million, but $13.3 million of the cost is being funded by 1 percent interest loans from the state.
Also, Kendall said DPU’s capital improvement plan is being partially funded through profit transfers being retained by DPU rather than those profits transfers going to the County’s general fund. In the DPU’s revenue budget, there is a 4 percent rate increase for water and a 2 percent rate increase for sewer. Kendall said, the proposed budget does not include revenue the County may receive from the American Rescue Plan Act or related budgeted expenditures. Kendall said this is an item that will be brought to council in the future.
While there is good news with the County’s budget, Burgess said there are challenges.
“Despite the County’s fiscal situation, we know many businesses have suffered through this pandemic so the American Rescue Plan will be important,” he said. “We need to recognize that making the community work is what we are here to do … we are trying to support the community…”
County Public Information Officer Julie Habiger noted that the County is facing a new challenge with getting needed resources without any delays. She said the pandemic has caused delays on a national level within supply chains and it is difficult to receive items from piping to roll carts in a timely manner. County Chief Financial Officer Helen Perraglio said the American Rescue Plan also presents some hurdles. She explained that the County would get money based on its population, which can hurt Los Alamos because its population size doesn’t equate to the level of services the County provides. This issue is being discussed with federal officials, Perraglio said.
Still, there is a lot to feel optimistic about regarding the County’s budget.
Burgess said there is “no one thing” that has attributed to a strong budget. However, he said every day the County staff is charged with managing and spending the taxpayers’ dollars the best way they can. He noted it also helps that many of the County’s projects come in at or under budget. Additionally, Perraglio said there is a big differentiation between a one-time cost and reoccurring costs. She said the County strives to have only critical reoccurring costs and pay once for big ticket items.
“That differentiation is very critical for success, and for maintaining healthy fund reserves,” she said.
Additionally, the County has invested in cyber security and that will remain a focus, Perraglio said; “we have maintained strong internal controls and this is demonstrated in the County’s most recent audit, which produced no findings.”
“We put a lot of effort in preventing cyber threats, and having strong internal controls to safeguard assets,” she said.