County nervous over its impending budget crunch | AspenTimes.com
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County nervous over its impending budget crunch

Allyn Harvey

So which service should the county cut? Housing? Law enforcement? Is it OK if the community development department stops enforcing certain sections of the land use code?

You wouldn’t mind waiting 10 extra minutes at the county clerk and recorder’s office when you stop by to pick up your auto license tabs, would you?

Those are the kinds of decisions the county commissioners are going to be making over the next 30 months if the cost of labor, at every level from temporary road workers to full-time assistant county managers, grows as predicted.

“The financial advisory board expects labor costs to start moving and start moving in a big way,” said county budget director Lynn Dunlop.

The advisory board, using data from around the state and the nation, estimates that the cost of hiring, training and keeping – about two-thirds of the annual operating budget – is expected to grow 8 percent in 2002, 9 percent in 2003 and 10 percent a year for several years after that. Top those projections off with expectations of higher inflation and lower growth in the local economy in coming years, and it makes for a dismal budget picture.

The county commissioners began their annual budget deliberations yesterday, and the good news, if it’s really good, is that you won’t be waiting an extra 10 minutes for your licenses tabs next year.

“Next year’s budget isn’t going to be radically different than this year’s budget – it’s going to be a maintenance budget,” said County Commissioner Mick Ireland.

In 2000, the county’s overall budget was $41 million. That amount includes dedicated tax revenues and funding from other government agencies that passes through the county budget on the way to its final destination. Money raised through the sales taxes that are dedicated to public transportation (RFTA) makes up about $3.8 million of the overall budget; property taxes and money from the state government that goes to the library district accounts for $1.7 million, and the property taxes earmarked for the Open Space and Trails program contributed $3.8 million.

All of that money is expected to be available in coming years. The cuts will come from the general fund, which is $13.7 million this year. The money used to plow Woody Creek Road or repair Watson Divide Road, for instance, comes out of the general fund. The sheriff’s deputies who investigate (and hopefully solve) crime in Pitkin County are paid out of the general fund, too. So is the clerk who sets you up with a new set of license tabs.

About $3 million of this year’s general fund was spent on capital projects – replacing cars in the county fleet, road maintenance and improvements, building repairs – and the remaining $10.7 million was spent on county operations. About 25 percent goes to the sheriff’s department, another 25 percent is spent by the road and bridge department, and 7 percent is spent on health and human services. The remainder pays the bills for the assessor, the county attorney, community development, the clerk and recorder, the county manager’s office and every other department in the county.

Even if residents can expect roughly the same level of service from the various county departments in the coming year, the impending budget crunch will likely affect some of what happens in 2001. During yesterday’s deliberations, for instance, the county commissioners struggled over what to do with the growing workload at community development.

The community development office is responsible for long-range planning, reviewing land use applications and enforcing the zoning code. Its workload has increased lately because of the extensive changes made to the land use code earlier this summer. The department is also embarking on a planning process in the Crystal River Valley that is expected to take several years.

It’s more than the current number of planners can handle, says Community Development Director Cindy Houben, but the number of new employees needed to make things right in her department may be more than the county can afford. Other departments that have held back on new employees – like the sheriff’s office – are also expected to show up this fall with hat in hand.

“In the long run, if you have to stop doing something, what would it be?” Ireland said.


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