Pitkin County proposes $141 million budget for 2021, down 4% from this year

A woman runs across an empty street in downtown Aspen on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Pitkin County’s proposed budget for 2021 is a reflection of COVID-age unpredictability.

It continues a conservative bent that began a year ago when the county’s Financial Advisory Board recommended budgeting for a possible upcoming recession or economic downturn, and includes a salary freeze for county employees, decreased revenue projections and slightly fewer full-time employees.

“The overarching theme is an unprecedented level of uncertainty driven by COVID-19,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. “We’re trying to project the post-lockdown economy.”

However, if future numbers come in higher — sales tax is the biggest question mark — commissioners can reconsider the allocations, especially the wage freeze.

“There will be changes to the numbers,” Peacock told commissioners Tuesday at their regular work session. “Sales tax projections change month-to-month (and) … are a little bit of a moving target.”

Overall, Pitkin County proposed a $141.7 million budget, a 4% decrease from 2020, that includes a 1.5% drop in overall revenue from 2020. Most of the money in the budget comes from various tax mills and is specified for particular areas such as the Open Space and Trails Fund, the Road and Bridge Fund and the Ambulance District Fund.

“We’d like to spend (that fund money) but we can’t,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper, noting that most of it is earmarked for specific purposes.

The drop in revenue is, in part, because of a significant decrease in Airport Fund revenue “caused by a reduction in operations and enplanements” at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, according to a memo from Peacock to county board members. Funds like those that support the airport and the landfill are self-sustaining that are solely supported by revenue generated by the facilities.

“Other funds’ revenues remain stable, however, as property tax and other revenue streams have not been impacted to he same extent,” the memo states.

Under the proposed 2021 budget, those various funds would fuel $2.3 million in county road maintenance projects, a feasibility study of a trail from the Brush Creek Park and Ride to the Aspen Business Center, more than $4 million in improvements to the county landfill including expansion efforts to extend the facility’s life, $1 million for county jail safety improvements and nearly $1.5 million for affordable housing efforts.

Most of the money to run the actual government, however, comes from the county’s general fund, which is actually expected to grow by 2.6% in 2021. Property taxes, sales taxes, investment income and community development fees are expected to produce general fund revenue of just over $35 million in 2021.

Sales taxes were on pace for double-digit growth in January and February before the COVDI-19 pandemic hit, when they dropped 48% in March, Peacock said. From April through August, county sales tax numbers are down 4.2% over 2019. The county budgeted a 7.9% decrease in sales tax money and a 0% increase next year.

The cost of running Pitkin County’s government in 2021 is projected to take a little more than $31.5 million of those general funds.

The largest of those expenses — more than $11.5 million — goes toward running the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. Next is general government at about $9.5 million, followed by community development at $4.1 million, facilities at $2.9 million, the county clerk, elections and assessor at $2.5 million and public works at $809,000.

Pitkin County pays nearly $20.1 million a year in employee salaries, benefits and health insurance, according to county statistics. Peacock and his staff proposed no wage increases for 2021, though there will be a bonus pool, he said. Health benefits will be largely unchanged as well.

Clapper said she would like to reconsider the wage freeze if the county receives better financial news down the road.

“I’d like to revisit wages if the environment changes to positive in 2021,” Clapper said. “It’s a big issue for me.”

Peacock said county staff asked for few new projects and cut back on training and travel budgets to cut expenses.

“(The wage freeze) was probably the hardest decision in a lot of ways,” he said.

County Budget Director Connie Baker said many deserving county employees are being overlooked with the freeze.

“It’s difficult because some employees are working seven days a week on COVID in service to the county,” she said. “If you look at their work, they would deserve a big raise.”

The number of full-time Pitkin County employees is set to decrease slightly in 2021, though it increased substantially in 2020 to more than 346 from 317 in 2019. That jump was mostly due to an increase in Public Health Department staff, which went from eight full-time employees in 2019 to more than 25 this year to deal with the pandemic.

The county is expected to employ 344.5 full-time employees in 2021, according to the proposed budget statistics.

County commissioners will hold hearings throughout October and November with various departments and hear minute details of the proposed 2021 budget. They are expected to vote on the full budget Dec. 15.