Pinched Pitco cuts funding for services | AspenTimes.com

Pinched Pitco cuts funding for services

Allyn HarveyAspen Times Staff Writer

Pitkin County announced more than $900,000 in program and operational cuts yesterday as part of its ongoing effort to balance the county budget.The county’s downvalley office in Basalt, which serves more than 30 people a day on the days it is staffed, is scheduled to close permanently on July 31. The county has abandoned its restaurant inspection program, and recycling programs at the county landfill are also threatened.County donations to most nonprofits, such as GrassRoots Television and the Independence Pass Foundation, were eliminated altogether. Some assistance remains available for health and human service organizations, however.Financial support for neighborhood caucuses, an important link in the land-use process, was cut entirely.Several building maintenance programs were delayed or eliminated, including a plan to repaint the health and human services building.County employees will see their day-to-day lives change in small and big ways with the elimination of spending on everything from training to coffee and tea.And the county commissioners will soon decide whether to sharply increase the fees for processing development applications and building permits, or eliminate several positions and make people wait longer for their paperwork to be completed.The cuts come a week after the county laid off three employees, including the director of environmental health, to make up for a $1.9 million shortfall in the county budget.County officials warned if voters don’t approve property tax increases this fall to make up for part of the shortfall, even more drastic cuts are on the way.When they set their budget for 2002, the commissioners took an optimistic view that sales tax collections, which account for nearly a third of the county’s general fund revenues, would fall by just 5 percent from their 2001 level. They are actually down 6.5 percent for the year, according to the latest figures. Fees from building permits and development applications, which also account for about a third of the budget, are also down sharply.”What makes this so difficult is the county has been cutting back for a long time, for several years,” said Pitkin County Manager Hilary Smith.Several positions were eliminated in 2000 following an efficiency review. This January, the county’s senior managers eliminated six more positions, all of which were vacant at the time, and ordered a 5 percent cut in the operating budgets of all departments.The commissioners also took a first look at the cuts that will be necessary if voters do not approve a property tax increase that would make up at least part of the shortfall that Tom Oken, county finance director, expects to average $2.2 million for the next five years.The county intends to ask voters to approve three tax questions this year, beginning with the primary election next month.The first question will ask for an adjustment to the home rule charter in the way the county calculates inflation and property value increases so it is in line with the state constitution. The change would add about $140,000 to the budget. The other two questions, scheduled for the November ballot, ask for general property tax increases to add about $1.8 million to the general fund.The cuts being contemplated in the event voters reject the tax increases are drastic.-Public works will allow all but the seven most heavily traveled roads to return to gravel, and the plan to pave Owl Creek Road will be indefinitely postponed;-Two departments, health and human services and community relations, will be closed for good, resulting in at least four layoffs;-Contributions to the senior services program will be drastically reduced;-The county wildlife biologist will be laid off;-Remaining nonprofit donations, including those to health and human service agencies, will be eliminated;-The county will no longer contribute to the Nordic Trails program;-And the animal safety officer will be cut from the rolls at the sheriff’s office.”You cut one person in many cases, and you cut out an entire service,” said County Commissioner Dorothea Farris.Her colleague, Patti Clapper, was on the verge of tears near the end of yesterday’s meeting. “We’re looking at cutting all the things I support – everything I was elected to do is threatened,” she said.[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com.]