Sheehey: Fiscally Responsible vs. ‘Fiscally Conservative’

Los Alamos County Councilor

The recent letter “Save for the Lean Years” (link) is full of inaccuracies that demand a response. Of course during years of plenty, we should keep some funds in reserve. That is why I have always supported our county policy to maintain over $10 million (15 to 20 percent of general fund revenues) in an uncommitted reserve, above and beyond the 8 percent (for us ~$4.5 million) required of all counties. In my five years on County Council, when more funds have been available, I have worked to invest those funds in growing our local economy.

New or improved recreational facilities attract families and tourists alike. But I believe it is a higher priority to invest in economic development that will bring new jobs and private investment, leading to a broader tax base that can support additional recreational development.  The county has put millions into infrastructure at sites in White Rock and Los Alamos, given loans or grants in LEDA projects that support growing new businesses, and encouraged housing rehabilitation, to provide better options to work and live. The county also has set aside millions of dollars for other important projects, such as connecting the broadband “middle mile” to greatly increase Internet capacity in Los Alamos.

Only when I have been satisfied that we are managing economic development and infrastructure well, have I been willing to approve further recreational amenities. Our citizens voted not to incur $20 million in debt for a larger set of recreational facilities, but many people, from both sides of the rec bond question, urged me to go ahead with facilities that we could afford.

The prospect of the county losing $20 million per year in GRT if the new LANL contractor is a non-profit is a serious concern. It is established law – US vs. New Mexico, 455 U.S. 720 (1982) – that Lab contractors must pay state taxes, and it is up to the state of New Mexico to determine whether some or all non-profit entities should be required to pay full GRT (non-profits have long been required to pay GRT on subcontracted services).

As Morrie Pongratz (“A Bit of Nit Picking”) (link) pointed out, the “good old days” of DOE directly providing “Assistance Payments” to the county to pay for the infrastructure and services required to host a $2 billion plus Lab operation, are not coming back. The state and county depend on Lab GRT for that expense. In the recent CIP decision, Council unanimously agreed to my requirement that the GRT question on the new Lab contract be settled before any money is committed for pool construction.

The statements in the “Lean Years” letter (link) about the county’s budget are confused and factually incorrect. The county does not run “deficits where expenditures have consistently exceeded our revenues” nor does it run “negative net fund balances.” In some years, a fund like the CIP fund may spend more money than it takes in, but that is because the fund is built up in previous years to cover planned expenses. There is nothing fictitious about our reserves. The county and its utilities department are meticulous about meeting debt service, and they take opportunities to reduce our debt. Apart from some state water system grants/loans paid for by water system revenues, the only borrowing Councils have agreed to in my five years there has been refinancing at lower interest rates, saving the county money.

The real violation of stewardship is the Republican party in Washington claiming that they are “fiscal conservatives” while passing a tax bill that borrows a trillion dollars, which our children will have to pay off, to give a moderate tax cut to individuals and a massive tax cut to rich people and corporations. True fiscal responsibility, on which I campaigned and which I have practiced, means working to get maximum value for every taxpayer dollar spent, and investing the taxes we have collected for the maximum benefit to our community.