ASPEN - Pitkin County is already bracing for next year's potential wildfire season.
County commissioners agreed Tuesday to carry $125,000 forward from 2012, keeping it in place next year in case it is needed quickly to fight a wildfire. The money originally was appropriated through an emergency approval in early July, when wildfire danger was off the charts, but wound up going unused this year.
County Manager Jon Peacock, noting the already below-average snowpack this winter, recommended that the money remain available next year for the same purposes: firefighting as well as public education and mitigation work to reduce fire danger in areas where development abuts wild lands.
Commissioner Rob Ittner, however, questioned the need to allocate the entire sum for a situation that might or might not develop.
"There's no indication whatsoever that we're going to have that extraordinary situation next year," he said.
So far, the weather pattern is shaping up in similar fashion, Peacock countered, urging commissioners to have the funds at the ready in the first quarter of 2013 in case there's a need for an early start to wildfire-mitigation efforts.
The wildfire season has extended into December on the Front Range, Commissioner Rachel Richards noted, citing fire bans in the Estes Park area and in Boulder County and a burning wildfire in Rocky Mountain National Park.
"I just think it's about being ahead of the curve," she said.
"We're starting off worse than last year," Commissioner Jack Hatfield agreed. "If we don't get significant snowfall by mid-December, we're going to be way behind the curve."
If the funds aren't spent next year, they'll simply be part of 2013's end-of-year fund balance, Hatfield said.
"I don't think we want to be in the position we were in last year - coming to you in the summer to ask for funds in case we do have an event," Peacock said.
Commissioners also scrutinized 2012 sales tax revenue, which might not meet projections for December if snow does not materialize. Sales tax proceeds were up 7 percent over 2011 at one point but had slipped to 4.9 percent over last year by the end of September. The county projected a 4.7 percent increase in sales tax revenue this year.
Hatfield questioned whether the county should start making adjustments to its 2013 spending plan to reflect a decline that could be more pronounced by the end of December, but Peacock and Finance Director John Redmond advised against reacting now.
"I think we stay the course at this point. It's just one of our revenues," Redmond said.
Sales tax monies make up 19 percent of overall county revenues.
The county can delay capital projects next year if necessary and won't implement a planned 3 percent increase in its compensation pool until several months into the new year, giving it time to adjust if necessary, Peacock said.
On Tuesday, commissioners took their final informal look at the 2013 budget. Formal action is scheduled for a first reading on Tuesday, with a second reading and adoption of the budget resolutions on Dec. 19.
The budget includes $21.5 million in general-fund expenditures, covering basic county functions such as law enforcement, road and bridge, health and human services and administration. Other county operations, such as the library, airport, landfill and open space and trails, are either supported by their own individual property tax or operate without local tax support; they are not part of the general fund.
General capital expenses of $9.7 million are planned next year as the county continues to undertake major road and bridge projects, but a $15.9 million balance in unspent funds is forecast at the end of next year.
"It gives us the room to deal with both downturns and real, unexpected events," Peacock said.