Eagle County to shed more than 30 employees | AspenTimes.com

Eagle County to shed more than 30 employees

Scott N. Miller
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

EAGLE, Colo. – The numbers are almost crunched on Eagle County’s 2010 budget, and there are plenty of zeroes and commas in the big picture.

The biggest number, to some, is 32 – the number of county employees who have either been laid off or have accepted early retirement packages. That was the number that brought Carleen Heckendorf and her husband, Robert, to Tuesday’s public hearing on next year’s county budget.

“Cutting jobs has been the primary means of cutting the budget,” Carleen Heckendorf said.

More people out of work means more than just reduced levels of service and fewer programs from the county. People losing their jobs means fewer people spending money in local shops and stores, and, perhaps, more people leaving the valley and leaving vacant homes behind them.

“That means bigger drops in property values,” Heckendorf said.

To the Heckendorfs, the solution lies in bringing more money into the county’s coffers. Carleen Heckendorf asked the county commissioners to consider a “head tax” on employees and employers, to the tune of roughly $10 per month per employee.

Such a tax could have raised about $3.6 million this year, according to Heckendorf’s numbers. That would have been enough to minimize, if not eliminate, the county’s job losses.

The commissioners were sympathetic to Heckendorf’s idea, but said the idea of asking voters to approve virtually any new tax probably won’t go very far in the current economic climate.

“It was our consensus that this wasn’t the year to go to voters with any tax proposals,” Commissioner Jon Stavney said. “We don’t think we can go to the voters with anything that isn’t specifically targeted. People just don’t have the stomach for it this year.”

In fact, the commissioners have herd from residents opposed to the county’s proposal to increase property tax revenue roughly 11 percent in 2010, and spent some time during Tuesday’s hearing defending the plan to keep the county property tax rate, or mill levy, at the same level it was in 2009.

County Finance Director John Lewis told the commissioners that any refunds provided to taxpayers would be expensive to process, and would average $39 per resident, and the cost of determining who exactly should receive refunds would cost almost that much.

“We spent a lot of time on this,” Commissioner Peter Runyon said. “We looked at ways to get other taxing entities on board with us, and hit roadblock after roadblock after roadblock every time we went after a new concept.”

With the property tax increase apparently set, Lewis provided numbers detailing just how much county taxpayers spent to fill the county’s general fund compared to other areas.

Lewis’ presentation showed that Eagle County’s general fund takes about 7.5 percent of a county resident’s total property tax bill. That number is doubled when other county funds are included.

Lewis’ numbers show county residents pay, on average, $287 each into the county’s general fund. The average Pitkin County resident pays $991, and the average Grand County resident pays $599.

While the county’s estimates show income exceeding spending for 2010 and 2011, the picture could change for the worse in 2012 and, especially, 2013.

The problem, from the county government’s perspective, is an expected deep drop in property tax collections starting in 2012.

State law controls how property taxes are calculated, with county assessors’ offices conducting surveys of property value every other year. The last valuation was conducted in June of 2008, before local property values had been much affected by the current economic slump. That’s why the county’s official value numbers don’t match the current market.

The county’s numbers will likely catch up with the market when the next valuation is taken at the end of June, 2010. Lewis has estimated that county property values will drop 20 percent or more when that happens. That’s going to translate into significantly lower property tax collections starting in 2012 and 2013.

While current projections show the county’s budget in balance, or close to it, through 2012, there’s still a deficit in the 2013 projections.

There’s still work to be done to get the 2013 numbers straightened out, Lewis said. “We need to broaden our revenue streams while becoming even more cost efficient,” he said, adding that new revenue could come from grants and similar sources.

“We’re not there yet,” Commissioner Sara Fisher said of future projections. “But now we can approach 2013 without a complete sense of fear. And we can be more concerned about the future than next year.”


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