Garfield County finance officials optimistic about economy | AspenTimes.com

Garfield County finance officials optimistic about economy

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Garfield County finance department officials outlined a fairly optimistic view of the region’s economic future on Tuesday, when they presented the proposed 2010 county budget to the county commissioners.

Finance Director Lisa Dawson and budget analyst Theresa Wagenman, in a PowerPoint presentation to a room filled with county staff members, projected that the county’s property tax revenues will fall off precipitously in 2011 but should be back up close to their current levels by 2014.

The finance officials stressed that all figures presented to the staff are preliminary and that the budget will continue to undergo alterations until the commissioners move for final adoption in December. They said they based their projections on careful readings of economic indicators and reports, as well as local economic trends.

While county property tax proceeds are projected to skyrocket to $70 million for 2010, officials say property taxes receipts will plummet to $33 million the following year, and stay below the $40 million mark through 2013, a reflection of the continuing national recession and a sharp drop in oil and gas activity on the Western Slope.

But in 2014, according to the projections contained in the budget documents, property tax collections are expected to be $42.5 million, signaling a resurgent area economy and a renewal of high levels of oil and gas activity.

Overall, the county expects to take in more than $109.6 million in revenues in 2010. Besides property taxes, much of the balance is expected to come from grants ($20.5 million) and charges and fees ($8.1 million).

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Sales tax receipts, which historically have made up approximately 7 percent of the county’s revenues, are expected to come in at just more than $6 million in 2010, or between 3 and 5 percent of revenues. Sales tax receipts are expected to remain relatively flat for 2011, perhaps returning to 2009 levels in 2012.

On the expense side of the ledger, according to the documents, the county expects to spend a total of $87.6 million or so, compared to projections of $85.8 million in expenses for 2009. Those amounts, said Wagenman, reflect an average increase of 2 percent in operations costs for all departments, a trend that is expected to be in place for several years.

For the year 2011, Wagenman told the commissioners and assembled staff, the county’s total expenses are expected to be approximately $89 million, compared to revenues of approximately $77 million, meaning deficit spending amounting to “almost $12 million.”

That spending, she said, will be covered by the county’s healthy “fund balance,” or money the county has been socking away for a rainy day for years.

The balance, fed by several years of bulging property tax collections that come largely from the oil and gas industry, is expected to stand at “about $80 million” by the end of 2009, and to be in the neighborhood of $90 million by the end of 2010, according to statements by County Manager Ed Green.

Those reserves will dip in succeeding years, according to the finance department, which projects fund balances of $86 million in 2011, $78 million in 2012 and $75 million in 2013.

That dip is due to declines in property values – for industrial, commercial and residential properties. Because tax collections lag two years behind tax assessments, the 2011 tax receipts will reflect the 2009 recession and drop in property values.

The county’s fund balance is projected to begin climbing back up after that, reaching $78 million in 2014, according to budget documents.

In general, the county is holding salaries at 2009 levels, although there is a possibility of a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for 2010. The commissioners will review the county’s financial picture in January 2010 before deciding that issue.

The county is expecting to hire five more employees, bringing the total number of full-time and part-time workers to 501 for next year.

The five new employees requested include three for the sheriff’s department – a civil deputy and two administrative assistants – two of whom are to work in the new sheriff’s office annex facility in Rifle, which has yet to be built.

Also being considered are three summer interns at part-time wages, one for the county attorney’s office, one for the finance department and one for the building and planning department.

The road and bridge department has requested two part-time summer workers for weed-cutting and related work, while the information technology department is asking for a Web administrator to look after the county’s website.

The total budgetary impact of the requested new positions is $126,000, according to the finance department’s presentation.

Within the general fund, which includes the county’s basic operating accounts, there are 308 employees – 151 of them in the sheriff’s office, and 157 in all other departments.

The county’s motor pool, which is not part of the general fund, has requested replacement of five sheriff’s office vehicles – some of which may be rotated into continuing service as general county vehicles – and three of the county’s hybrid Toyota Prius vehicles, due to age and mileage limits. The Priuses are to be replaced by Ford Escape hybrids, according to Green.

The budget reflects a number of capital projects for the year, including a $26 million expansion of the runway at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle. The airport is to be closed for six months next year for the construction. Most of the cost of the work is to be paid for with Federal Aviation Administration funds.

The budget also calls for half a dozen road and bridge projects, worth a total of about $7 million, including finishing up the reconstruction of County Road 204, paid for by a $25 million contribution from Chevron.

The remaining projects include work on the Black Diamond bridge up Four Mile Road, flash-flood mitigation in Canyon Creek and work on the Satank Bridge project near Carbondale.

jcolson@postindependent.com