O’Leary: Citizens Identify Recreation Projects As Priority For Today

Vice Chair, County Council

Caveat: Information included in all of these columns are my own views as an individual Council member and does not represent a formal opinion of the County Council.

On Dec. 20, the County Council will make a final determination on which recreation projects to recommend to the voters for completion through proceeds of a May 2017 bond election; with the plan to supplement the bond proceeds with existing capital improvements funds if the bond passes. So, the Council is not voting to execute these projects; but is voting on whether to let the citizens of the County decide.

I’ll write a detailed column explaining the money side of this decision soon, but to give an idea of the prospective cost, County staff reports that for a family owning a home with an assessed value of $300,000, the additional property tax cost added by the $20 million bond would be approximately $18 per month. A local CPA pointed out to me that since property taxes are deductible for income tax purposes, the effective cost would be quite a bit less for most homeowners.

During a period of 16 months, the County Council held more than a dozen advertised public meetings either specifically on this topic, or where this topic was discussed. At each instance, public comment was solicited and received, and those meetings were well covered by print and online media. At the Town Hall Meetings specifically held to hear citizen priorities for capital improvement projects, we heard a consistent message over and over and over: Citizens asked the County Council to make capital investments to improve our recreation facilities.

Who did we hear this from?

  • Children of all ages told us that they need more gyms and a second sheet of ice so they don’t have to attend practice at extremely early and late hours, or travel multiple times a week outside the county, just to play their sport.
  • Senior citizens want improved recreation facilities for their own use and to enjoy time with their grandkids.
  • Parents support these investments because they offer healthy ways to spend quality time with their families.
  • School board members, coaches, teachers, and other community service providers support recreation facilities that increase playing time and expand healthy activities for youth.
  • Young and older adults want more open gym space for pickup games and intramural recreation.
  • Citizens who were dissatisfied that other, less-affluent towns seem to be able to find the resources for quality recreation facilities; while it has not been made a priority here.

I was impressed with the pride our citizens have in our community. Many people shared how much they love living in Los Alamos. The positive energy and collaborative spirit expressed by hundreds of citizens throughout this process has showed a strong commitment to community. It’s been great to see citizens trying to drive spending decisions by the County that will benefit them and us all.

There’s no doubt that Los Alamos County has extraordinary outdoor recreation amenities with a world class trail system and Pajarito Mountain. I suspect the open space and trail advocates are the most fortunate and happiest recreation group in town. But consistently throughout the public comments in the many public meetings, there was general agreement that currently available indoor recreation facilities are not providing an acceptable quality and capacity as desired by citizens. Existing outdoor facilities are treasured and yet some are threadbare and in dire need of an infusion of capital to renew aging infrastructure.

As a result of this citizen feedback, the County developed a list of eight projects to address the gaps in current recreation amenities. These projects have been evaluated over many months and they address gaps in facilities that impact many activities and user-groups. Each project is justified by legitimate need and will benefit many citizens. To learn the details of each project, please read this presentation: https://losalamosbondprojects2017.com/.

You might wonder why so many citizens recommend a major upgrade of recreation facilities as the top priority now.

First, we have legitimate safety issues with current facilities used by youth and adults playing basketball, volleyball, softball, baseball, roller derby and hockey. Aging elementary school cafeterias have insufficient space and flooring and are used because there is no available gym space. Locker rooms at the outdoor ice rink are overcrowded. Martial arts classes are held in spaces designed for retail. Ball fields have gopher holes. We heard from someone who makes decisions about where to host baseball tournaments, and he told us that Los Alamos doesn’t make the cut because our fields aren’t safe. Our kids are playing on them every day.

One of the loudest and most consistent messages we heard was about the dire lack of capacity for indoor recreation activity in Los Alamos. The lack of gym space and a reliable sheet of ice results in insufficient practice time for our teams; players being cut because there isn’t enough space for more people to play; practice times that are too late or too early; and too much travel to use the gyms and ice in other communities for practices and games because we lack the capacity here. The lack of an indoor recreation swimming facility with shallow, warm water means beginning swimmers and those who just want to have fun and recreate in water have limited options through all but the summer months.

The County also needs to make necessary capital investments in current facilities. The Golf Course needs a new irrigation system because the current system is decrepit and failing. If the irrigation system is not improved, we risk permanently losing the course.

We’re fortunate to have so many citizens who value and want to enjoy healthy recreation. We’re a community that works hard at jobs that are critically important and complex, and we need healthy ways to have fun and deal with stress. Because of our remote location, we need facilities here in town that promote healthy living and family activities.

As one County Councilor, I heard that message loud and clear.

In my next column, I’ll offer some hard data to show that family recreation has been budgetarily starved in the past decade, while the County focused spending on its own operational needs and on non-recreation economic development that has not always delivered the promised returns. We can’t revisit those decisions; but we can be conscious of them moving forward. I’ll also cover the financing aspects in more detail; costs, funding sources, the bond election, and potential impact to property taxes.

Editor’s note: To read O’Leary’s first column in this series on the Recreation Bond Projects, click here.