Pitkin County cost-cutting talk turns heated
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” A debate verging on argument arose at the Pitkin County commissioners’ work session Tuesday in Aspen, when Commissioner Michael Owsley suggested the board use the budget-cutting knife on their own office at the same time they trim the budgets of other departments.
“This calls for sacrifice, not just for the staff, but from us,” he told fellow commissioners, after suggesting they look at cutting a variety of amenities, such as subsidized lunches on meeting days, use of the county’s vehicles to travel to distant meetings, “per diem” reimbursements, salary raises and the very office and desks used by the commissioners to conduct county business.
Owsley noted that the idea of trimming the commissioners’ own budgetary footprint was first raised by Commission Chairman Jack Hatfield, who recently chided county staff for failing to make deep-enough cuts in the county’s budget and for trying to maintain “business as usual.”
“To do commissioners’ work, all I really need is a cell phone and a drop box,” he said of his own willingness to give up his desk and turn the space over to county staffers, who have long complained of cramped quarters.
Owsley argued for cutting these and other things, including the county’s membership in a wide range of statewide organizations such as Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI), and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG).
“We could cut out $177,000,” he said. “I think there’re areas we could discuss … as serious cutbacks.”
His opponent, former commissioner Shellie Roy, has criticized Owsley, who is running for a second term, for not stepping up to take on state-level committee assignments such as NWCCOG and CCI. He has responded that he simply prefers to fulfill his committee work on local boards instead, and his fellow commissioners have not publicly joined in Roy’s criticism.
Commissioners were not, however, impressed by Owsley’s suggestions about how to cut costs, although all agreed that it was a good idea in principle.
“It’s vitally important to me,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper, obviously upset, referring to her participation in a number of statewide groups, and to her occasional forays to Washington, D.C., on county business.
“Until you actually participate in these groups you don’t know how valuable they are,” she told Owsley.
“You can’t just cut out for one year and come back,” she said, explaining that one establishes contacts and engages in networking that proves important to the county on many levels.
As for the idea of giving the commissioners’ office space to the staff, she said that “we may not need five desks.”
But she said she has no room at her home to take care of county work. “I think it’s important for us to have some space,” Clapper said.
Hatfield, backpedaling somewhat from his earlier remarks, said he didn’t necessarily agree with all that Owsley had proposed.
But he stood by his earlier criticism of county staffers, and echoed an earlier call for the commissioners to give up their catered lunches on regular meeting days.
“Every year we ought to have this discussion” to be sure the county’s money is being spent appropriately, Hatfield said.
In a wide-ranging discussion, all but Owsley recounted instances where membership in certain organizations had produced definitive benefits for the county.
Concerning the commissioners’ salaries, which will soon rise to more than $70,000 annually, Dorothea Farris, Clapper and Rachel Richards all argued that it is appropriate given the long meeting days, multiple trips to other parts of the state and county, and a commissioner’s broad duties.
“Twenty-five dollars an hour,” Farris mused. “I think I’m worth that.”
“With one income in my household [hers],” Clapper said she qualifies as falling below what is known as the “self-sufficiency standard” for a parent with children, a figure that is generally double or triple the national poverty line because of this county’s high cost of living. As for using the county’s vehicles, she said she does not own a car of her own and must borrow one from the county for long-distance commitments.
Richards justified her salary by reciting a litany of meetings, trips out of the area and other commitments that she faces in a regular week of her life as a commissioner.
“You’re the one who seems to be upset with the amount of time commitment,” she said pointedly to Hatfield, telling him that in working with him she’s “found a reluctance to meet more often.”
Hatfield objected, but went on that the county is not yet “talking as in a crisis mode” about drastic cuts in salaries or other expenses. That will come later, he said, if the national and regional economies truly take a dive.
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