COVID-19 fuels conservative 2021 Eagle County budget
In these uncertain times it can be difficult to figure out household spending from one week to the next, so planning a $131 million budget for 2021 presents a unique challenge for Eagle County.
This week the Eagle County Board of Commissioners approved its 2021 budget — a spending plan that anticipates a 15% drop in sales tax receipts at the beginning of the year and flat revenues over the coming 12 months as the county, nation and world hopefully begins its emergence into a post-COVID-19 era.
“There is a lot of uncertainly right now so we have put together a budget that keeps all of our services running and funds some of our top strategic funding priorities,” said Eagle County Finance Director Jill Klosterman. “It is more conservative than we have been in the past several years just because of all the uncertainty out there.”
For 2021, the county is anticipating revenues of $132 million from sales tax, property tax, service fees, grants and other revenues. Estimated expenditures are $131 million, but the county also estimates its total fund balance will be $172 million. Having that much money in reserve has been vital, county official say, during not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also during large emergencies such as the Grizzly Creek and Lake Christine fires.
Even though the current data trends are promising, Klosterman noted figuring out next year’s spending plan has been a challenge.
“Through October’s sales tax collections, we have collected essentially the same amount that we did for the same period in 2019, down less than 0.5%,” Klosterman said.
“While sales tax has been higher than estimated, we aren’t in our highest collection months,” Klosterman said. “What we are looking at for our 2021 projection is a larger decrease in our busiest months, from January through March. That is not because we are pessimistic but because we don’t know what to expect for the winter months, when the visitors are normally here.”
Uncertainty about the effects of COVID-19 on tourism and what that could mean to its revenue stream prompted the county to reduce its workforce by nine positions in 2020.
“We were happy to be able to do that under natural attrition and not any mass layoffs,” Klosterman said. “That was the goal when we entered into the world of a mass pandemic.”
Klosterman noted that 16 county employees accepted early retirement packages this year.
“We also had to fill new positions this year,” Klosterman continued. “A place where we have been actively hiring is nine temporary workers in the public health fund and one in the human services fund. Most of those jobs are grant-funded and in direct response to COVID.”
Salaries and benefits comprise the largest portion of the county’s annual budget. Overall, 43% of the county’s 2021 operating fund — nearly $57 million — will go to salaries and benefits.
Looking ahead, the county has beefed up its emergency management and public health funds by allocating approximately $800,000 in additional funding for a total budgeted amount of nearly $5.4 million.
“We don’t know what the No. 1 need will be next year, but we anticipate there will be a need in the first quarter of 2021,” Klosterman said. “The board is trying to figure out where the disease trends are going and what the highest need will be.”
For example, the increased funding may help vaccination efforts or augment the $3 million business bridge grant program announced last week, Klosterman explained.
While COVID-19 needs colors much of next year’s county budget, there are a number of other spending priorities for 2021.
The county has earmarked $2.4 million for construction of the Eagle Valley Trail, a section in the EagleVail area.
“The commissioners have made that one of their very top priorities because it reflects the strategic priority of providing a diverse and resilient economy for Eagle County,” Klosterman said.
The county approved $750,000 for mental health initiatives and $1.5 million for early children programming — priority objectives that will be carried forward from 2020. Another top county priority — affordable housing — will be addressed in the 2021 budget with $200,000 allocated for West Eagle planning and due diligence in anticipation of moving forward on a long-discussed housing development in the area.
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A flash flood warning has been issued for the Basalt Mountain and Lake Christine Fire burn area and it is in effect until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.