Aspen budget down, revenues up | AspenTimes.com

Aspen budget down, revenues up

Janet Urquhart

Aspen is looking at a $73.2 million budget for 2006 that includes seven new government staff positions and an extra $200,000 to cover the skyrocketing cost of fossil fuels.But it’s down from the 2005 budget of $112 million, thanks to lower debt payments and capital expenditures next year.And, revenues in this year’s booming economy have bolstered the city’s coffers by unprecedented levels.The City Council reviewed the 2006 budget Monday, kicking off a series of discussions that continues tonight and concludes with adoption of the budget in November.Adding new staffers – half of whom will be paid for through development fees – means the city needs additional office space. Administrators have recommended the city end its lease with Stay Aspen Snowmass, effective this spring, and take over the reservation agency’s space in the city-owned Rio Grande parking garage building.”We don’t have a single spot left in this building [City Hall] for more bodies,” said Steve Barwick, city manager. “The only way we’re going to make any of these staffing changes is to get more space.”Stay Aspen Snowmass is aware this decision is pending, he added.The proposed new employees include 3.5 positions in the Community Development/Building Department, which has been inundated with work associated with new development. Fee collections charged to the projects will offset the cost of the added staff, according to Paul Menter, city finance director. The additional employees are expected to be temporary – lasting as long as the building boom.Barwick has also proposed a public works director to oversee the Streets Department and the city’s utilities. The city eliminated the position about 10 years ago.”It’s coming back around – it’s time to have somebody coordinating those departments,” Barwick said.The $73.2 million budget reflects $30.4 million for operations, $8 million in debt payments and $34.8 million in capital expenses – primarily for continuing construction of the Burlingame Ranch housing project.About $27 million in revenue is expected when the first phase of employee residences at Burlingame are sold, starting next year.Also on the revenue side, the city expects to end the year with record revenues from its two real estate transfer taxes, thanks to record real estate sales. Menter is forecasting $9 million in RETT revenue dedicated to employee housing this year and $4.5 million from the RETT dedicated to the Wheeler Opera House. He is recommending the city plan for a modest increase in RETT funds next year, given the volatility of the revenue source.The city also expects sales tax revenues to exceed 2004 totals by 10 percent. August sales alone were up 14.4 percent, the city announced Monday (see related story). Menter suggested the city budget for a 1 percent increase over this year’s sales tax totals in 2006. The city also anticipates healthy increases – about 20 percent – in its water and electric utility revenues next year. The city increased rates in January, in part to encourage conservation, but the move didn’t necessarily have that effect.”Our utility customers are not very sensitive to changes in price,” Menter said. “They’ll pay whatever it takes to keep their lawns spongy.”Utility rate hikes are also slated for 2006, but the city may need to rethink that plan, given the revenue its taking in, he said.The council will begin to discuss individual city budgets in more detail tonight. The city’s transportation and parking budgets are problems, Barwick warned. They’re not sustainable beyond next year, he said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com