COVID-19 didn’t deliver funding wallop so Eagle County plans strategic priority spending in 2022
With strong sales tax revenues for 2021, commissioners eye housing, employee retention, early childhood and transportation funding
As they prepared the 2021 Eagle County budget, members of the the county’s financial team braced themselves for the worst.
But then something unexpected happened — the COVID-19 global pandemic didn’t hit has hard as they thought it would.
“Yes, we did go into a recession during COVID, but it was the shortest recession in U.S. history,” said Eagle County Chief Financial Officer Jill Klosterman. “And we had a huge sales tax year. Year-to-date we are up 26% over 2020.”
Now approaching the conclusion of a year when the budget anticipated a large decrease in sales tax revenues, the county expects to collect approximately $25 million.
“Last year we didn’t have any idea if folks were going to come here to ski or not,” said Klosterman. In the end, visitors did come and locals augmented tourist spending.
“People didn’t go out of the county to buy their goods. They did more ordering, which is something they became more comfortable with in 2021,” Klosterman said. “We now know a lot more about how to live and function in a COVID-19 world than we did at this time last year.”
That knowledge helped formulate the county’s 2022 budget, Klosterman continued.
“We are cautiously optimistic. We are looking at what happens in the world, but we are not really seeing anything out there that would cause us to be super conservative in this budget,” she said.
Faced with a budget that won’t be as lean as anticipated, the county commissioners are focused on staff retention and strategic goals.
Just like other large employers in the valley, the county is facing a difficult time finding workers. The 2022 budget will address that issue by including both merit and cost-of-living pay increases. Klosterman said the amount of money earmarked for wages hasn’t yet been finalized, but it will likely be between 4% and 7%.
“We are not isolated from the effects of the Great Resignation and the lack of workforce,” she said. “We want to try to keep our staff happy.”
Beyond the wages allocation, the county is looking at its list of strategic priorities as a roadmap for the budget. At the top of that list is workforce housing.
In 2021, better than anticipated revenues prompted the county to approve $10 million for the Bold Housing Moves program. By the end of the year, approximately $4.5 million of that money will have been spent with the remaining $5.5 million allocated for 2022.
Klosterman noted that much of the program focused on immediate intervention. As a result dollars went to increase down payment assistance and fund more deed-restricted units. There were also medium term projects such as providing homeowners with funding to build accessory dwelling units.
But big projects that would involve county participation in construction of new workforce units are longer term, and more expensive, solutions. Klosterman noted that $1.5 million has been set aside from the initial $10 million to help plan and launch that ambitious work.
“We have also entered into a listing agreement to sell Lake Creek Village. When that sale happens, we will have a plan to spend that money to build new units and partner with developers to really impact the housing need,” Klosterman said. “We will use every tool we have available.”
The 2022 county budget also includes funding for other priorities, including early childhood education, economic diversification, transportation, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and wildfire mitigation.
There is $1.7 million allocated for early childhood education access and quality.
“The workforce shortage has hit the early childhood work for as much, if not more than any other sector,” Klosterman noted.
A new county economic development program will get $225,000 in funding next years and the greenhouse gas reduction effort is slated for $1.6 million.
“The federal infrastructure bill has a lot of energy-related funding in it as well,” Klosterman said. “We just don’t know yet how that will translate into our budget.”
She noted the county will continue its Energy Smart program to provide grant money for residents who switch out older, inefficient systems and its partnerships with Walking Mountains Science Center and the Roaring Fork Valley Community Office for Resource Efficiency to address energy needs for low income residents.
“We are also planning to purchase more electric and hybrid vehicles for our motor pool fleeting including the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office,” Klosterman said. “We had a limited ability to purchase new vehicles in 2021 because of supply chain issues.”
The past couple of years have made wildfire mitigation a top priority for county officials, she continued. “We are actively talking about what is the right amount of local dollars to invest in this very high priority,” she said. The draft budget earmarks $1.2 million, but that figure is subject to change. “The infrastructure deal also has money for this, likely through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”
At the end of the trail
Rounding out strategic priorities, there is a project that’s been decades in the making — the Eagle Valley Trail.
In 2021, the county issued $8.7 million work of certificates of participation to complete the valley bike trail. Of that, $3.7 million was spend in 2021. Klosterman noted the year ahead will include work on some of the final, and some of the most difficult, stretches of unfinished path.
“It will include the Duck Pond to Dotsero stretch, EagleVail Phase II construction and the Wolcott to Edwards planning,” she said. “We think we may need to acquire some more rights-of-way or land as we continue that work.”
In total, the county’s operating/general fund budget will total $49 million in 2022. The county’s total budget — which includes the general fund as well as its debt service, transit, county airport, road and bridge, public health and other funds — will total $160 million.
The public hearing for the 2022 Eagle County budget is planned Tuesday, Dec. 7. The Eagle County Board of Commissioners is slated to adopt the final budget on Tuesday, Dec. 14.
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Alex Rager believes that the search for affordable housing in the Roaring Fork Valley can sometimes boil down to luck and timing. “When you least expect it and when you most need it is when things happen,” she said.