County agrees on programs to be cut if next month’s property tax question fails | AspenTimes.com

County agrees on programs to be cut if next month’s property tax question fails

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Throughout the debate this summer over what to cut if the tax question on the November ballot fails, the Pitkin County commissioners kept coming back to one place they didn’t want to go ? funding for health and human services and nonprofits.

“I don’t want to live in a county that doesn’t preserve its historic features, like the lime kilns. I don’t want to live in a county that doesn’t support its nonprofits, especially those that provide assistance in health care and human services,” said County Commissioner Dorothea Farris during a meeting in late August.

But that’s exactly the kind of county she’ll be living in if voters come out against the county’s property tax question on next month’s ballot.

Drastic cuts to: the road program, environmental health, community development, the sheriff’s office, human resources, the county finance department, the public works department, building maintenance and just about every other county department were considered and rejected by the commissioners during the debate over what exactly should be at stake with the $800,000 question on this fall’s ballot.

Most of the existing programs were ultimately spared from the chopping block either because they are mandated by state law or considered too important to cut. So Owl Creek Road will be paved no matter what voters decide to do with the property tax question next month.

After finding about $1.7 million in savings and reallocations from programs covered by the county’s general fund, the commissioners finally agreed that three programs were expendable:

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? The health and human services department, which oversees county-run health programs and the senior center. Along with Sundeen, the contract manager for health and human services will be laid off because the county would end its relationships with most of the agencies and nonprofits that provide everything from youth counseling to drug and alcohol treatment. Two employees at the senior center, one part time and one full time, will also lose their jobs if the tax increase fails; all of the social and outdoor programs for seniors are slated for elimination.

? The communications department, which handles internal communications with employees and emergency communications with the public during wildfires, airplane crashes and other emergencies will lose one of two employees. The manager, Nan Sundeen, who also serves as executive director of the health and human services department, will be fired if voters don’t approve the tax increase;

? Donations to a variety of nonprofits, including GrassRoots TV, the Nordic Trails system, the Wilderness Workshop, YouthZone, the Family Visitor Program, Colorado West Mental Health, Mountain Valley Developmental Services and other organizations will be drastically cut or eliminated altogether.

The cuts are necessary because the Financial Advisory Board, a citizen committee that advises the county government on economic and fiscal issues, is estimating a $2.5 million shortfall this year for the general fund budget. The general fund pays for basic county services such as elections, public safety, public works, licensing and building inspections.

Similar shortfalls are forecast for the next several years, and to make up about a quarter of that total, the county is asking for permission to spend $800,000 in excess property taxes that were collected this year. If approved, the money can’t be spent on anything but support for health and human services and nonprofits. The ballot question also asks permission to continue to collect the excess for four more years, until 2006.

Both county and state laws limit government entities from collecting and spending property taxes over and above the official growth rate, which is determined by inflation plus new construction.

Currently, property taxes and sales taxes each make up about 30 percent of the county’s general fund revenues; the remaining 40 percent is collected through fees.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]