County, nonprofits discuss budget woes | AspenTimes.com

County, nonprofits discuss budget woes

Allyn HarveyAspen Times Staff Writer

The Pitkin County commissioners told leaders of several nonprofit organizations yesterday that $118,000 in contributions will no longer be available unless voters support tax increases this fall.The commissioners met with directors from the Independence Pass Foundation, Aspen Wilderness Workshop, GrassRoots Television, Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and a number of other well-known nonprofits. The meeting came amid charges by tax opponents that the county is using nonprofit funding cuts to trick the public into approving a tax increase that will only fatten the bureaucracy.”I was told today that I put you on the cutting block because you’re so visible,” said County Commissioner Shellie Roy. “I was asked, ‘Don’t you want to save the babies?'”The “babies” – the handful of nonprofits that receive county support even though they aren’t in health and human services – reacted differently to that question. One threw a tantrum, another was indifferent, a third promised to fight.But all of them agreed the loss would be felt, even though the county money represents just a fraction of what they collect.Mark Cole, director of the ski club, noted the county’s $1,500 annual contribution represents a tiny portion of the club’s annual budget.”But,” he added, “we have no slack left in our budget. If we don’t get that $1,500, it probably means five children won’t get scholarships so they can participate this year.”Dottie Fox, longtime activist with the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, said a loss of county funding, $2,500 this year, combined with cutbacks by the U.S. Forest Service will jeopardize the group’s wilderness monitoring program. The program includes air quality monitoring that’s been running continuously on the top of Aspen Mountain for 15 years and regular testing of the acidity in alpine lakes.”I’m not sure how we can continue with this program unless we can find some alternative funding,” she said.Commissioner Dorothea Farris said losing programs like the Wilderness Workshop’s are what she fears most if voters don’t increase property taxes this fall.”If we don’t spend the money to get the information we need to make appropriate decisions, the repercussions could be devastating,” she said.The county general fund is facing a deficit of $1.9 million this year and projected deficits of $2.2 million over the next five years. The shortfall developed because sales tax collections have been far below even the anemic levels expected. Sales taxes make up about 30 percent of the county’s general fund budget.Road maintenance, the sheriff’s office, elections and licensing, community development, code enforcement, administration, the assessor, recycling, food inspections and other services are all paid out of the county’s general fund.For 2002, the county originally planned to spend $17.4 million on general fund services. After adjusting sales tax revenue projections downward in June, the general fund fell to just over $16 million.In response, a number of internal programs were scrapped, a countywide hiring freeze was enacted, and three employees were laid off, bringing the total number of positions eliminated this year to nine. The commissioners plan to ask the voters three questions relating to property taxes this year that will make up a portion of the projected deficits.County staff also recommended that a number of programs and positions be permanently cut, including donations to nonprofits that don’t provide health care or human services.Perhaps the worst affected was GrassRoots Television, slated to lose $35,000. GrassRoots board member Amy Margerum, a former Aspen city manager, said the cut would be “devastating” in light of the fact that a $50,000 grant from another source recently fell through.”GrassRoots is going to have a serious problem without this money,” Margerum said.She and another longtime supporter of the station proceeded to rail the county commissioners for not handing over the entire $75,000 franchise fee collected annually from the local cable provider, AT&T Broadband. They claim the money is meant solely for their cause.Margerum also reiterated the station’s desire to get its hands on the county translator department budget, several hundred thousand dollars collected annually from a dedicated property tax.The $75,000 collected from AT&T is budgeted for the general fund next year.David Hamilton, director of Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, a trail-building group, pointed out that the county gets a lot more in services from groups like his than it gives in donations. He criticized the commissioners from putting people like him in a “political position.””For us to go out and support a tax increase puts us at odds with a significant portion of property owners,” he said.That contrasts with Fox from the Wilderness Workshop, who called on nonprofits to actively campaign for the county’s property tax questions on the August and November ballots.[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]