Pitkin County ponders 16-plus new jobs to address COVID impacts
Pitkin County commissioners were a bit leery during budget discussions Tuesday when told that 16.5 new full-time county jobs were being proposed for 2022.
“Increasing 16 and a half positions is a tough one for me to swallow,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper, who noted that having to lay off employees during the COVID-19 pandemic was painful. “I just want to make sure we’re not building a building and filling it full of new employees. Because that’s what the community was worried about when we were building this building.
“Now it’s gonna look like that’s what we’re doing.”
Pitkin County, which spent nearly $25 million three years ago to renovate and add a wing on to the Administration Building on Main Street, is actually proposing 26.5 new full-time positions for the 2022 budget year. That number, however, is mitigated by the subtraction of 10 full-time positions that will either end or move to another department, most of them public health jobs.
The main reason for the additional county jobs? You guessed it — the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The position requests before the Board for the 2022 budget are simply a response to the impacts of COVID, the changes it has produced in our community and the resulting changes to workloads and work environments,” county Budget Director Connie Baker wrote in a memo to commissioners. “In short, COVID has strongly impacted almost every department of the county.”
Community development and the county clerk’s office have been hit hard by the construction and real estate boom. The finance department has had to keep track of an influx of federal COVID-related grants. Protests in the summer of 2020 gave rise to new legislation requiring the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to wear body cameras. An influx of visitors and new residents impacted roads, the landfill and open space and trails.
And so on.
Baker, however, said the county can afford the new positions.
First, a solid chunk of them come from departments that are paid for by dedicated funds supported by specific taxes or revenue generated from the specific department.
These include, first and foremost, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, which is slated to bring on four full-time custodians rather than contract out the service, and move six facilities technicians from nine-month part-timers to full-time. The airport, which is supported by the revenue it generates, will easily cover the increased salaries by canceling contracted services the new full-timers will be able to perform, the memo states.
The county landfill, also a revenue-supported department, would account for three new full-time jobs associated with a Habitat for Humanity ReStore-like retail outlet planned for the near future. Finally, the Open Space and Trails Program would add another job focused on the program’s agriculture land.
The rest of the proposed new jobs would come from the general fund, revenues generated by department or grants. Much of that grant money comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, while other local funding comes from an increase in sales tax revenue, according to Baker’s memo to commissioners.
The county’s share of sales tax started to go up in 2019 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Wayfair case, which allowed sales tax to be collected on internet sales and goods delivered to Pitkin County, the memo states. Then came COVID, which initially depressed collections, though the situation has changed significantly since then.
The “large increase in tourism, construction activity and internet shopping has brought our sales tax to historic levels,” Baker wrote. “Staff have been cautious not to count this as the new normal …”
The community development department leads the way in asking for new positions, with 4.5 new full-time jobs proposed to handle the increased workload, including starting a new short-term rental program. The county manager’s office wants to hire two new community relations positions, which would be paid for ARPA funds, while the finance, treasurer, sheriff and risk management departments all are asking for one new full time position.
Clapper, who frequently scrutinizes proposals for new full-time county jobs, also said she didn’t want the community to get the idea that “we were in this dire strait, this disaster” with COVID-19 “from here on out.”
Board Chairwoman Kelly McNicholas Kury said that while she was generally OK with the requests from specially funded departments, “when it comes to the administrative things, I might need some more information.” She also pointed to the board’s colleagues on the Aspen City Council, who she said were coming up with “transformational” ideas to address housing and other subjects, and wondered if that could be done in Pitkin County.
“Are there things we should look at that we’re not even touching?” McNicholas Kury asked, wondering if “transformational money” existed to start such projects.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said the county still has about $3.1 million in ARPA funds that have not yet been allocated, which could go toward such action.
Tuesday’s discussion was part of the board’s ongoing budget discussions. The final budget will be adopted in early December.