Pitkin County to freeze wages, cut positions | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County to freeze wages, cut positions

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Five positions in Pitkin County government were added back into the 2010 budget Tuesday by county commissioners, but some number of employees will not make the cut.

A $335,000 reduction in labor costs also received a nod from commissioners; details about what positions are affected by the cut will be made public Wednesday, said County Manager Hilary Fletcher. Three already-vacant Community Development Department positions will also be eliminated for a $230,614 savings.

“This will not be without pain and adjustment throughout the organization, but I think it’s necessary,” Fletcher said of the budget as a whole.

In their first look at the county’s general fund budget, including all of the county government’s core operations, plus its funds for roads and bridges and Social Services, commissioners agreed to proceed with a base budget that reflects a wage freeze for all county employees in 2010 and the following four years. The county’s budget planning extends five years out, though commissioners will ultimately adopt a budget only for the coming year.

Left out of the base budget were five positions – in code enforcement, community relations, land management, a community development application specialist and the emergency management coordinator – that commissioners agreed to reinstate for the next five years. Also added in was $15,000 for advertising – half of what was requested, and $53,420 in travel, training and organization membership expenses – 60 percent of what was requested. In total, the so-called “buy-ups” to the base budget will cost $530,121 in each of the next five years, to come from anticipated annual surplus revenue of $654,519.

In addition, for 2010 only, commissioners agreed to reinstate the provision of bus passes for employees and a fitness/wellness benefit that employees can apply toward the cost of a ski pass, gym membership or other recreational/wellness pursuits. The two items will cost $142,602 and will come from the county’s undesignated fund balance.

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The fitness/wellness benefit is worth $919 to an employee. Commissioner Jack Hatfield suggested cutting it back to about $700, but his colleagues were willing to keep the full amount in next year’s budget, given that employees will see no wage increases.

Fletcher called it a “reasonable investment” in staff, urging commissioners to retain both the bus pass and fitness/wellness benefits.

“This is an attempt to not cause our employees to see a reduction in take-home pay – an acknowledgment it’s difficult to live in this community and not see any [pay] increase,” she said.

Whether the benefits can be funded again in 2011 remains to be seen, commissioners said. If revenues are better than expected, Fletcher said she’ll be asking to address wages.

“By freezing salaries, that’s not just salaries, that’s peoples’ lives,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper.

On the revenue side, the county is anticipating a 1.2 percent increase in sales tax revenue averaged over the next five years, though it expects no increase in 2010. The budget anticipates little additional property tax revenue, as the county is capped in how much more it can take in despite a big jump in property values. It also reflects a 5 percent increase in community development fees for building permits and planning, but that’s an increase from an anticipated 35 percent plunge in those revenues this year.

Commissioners endorsed two new sources of revenue – $87,000 from increases in community development fees and $50,000 from adoption of the Model Traffic Code, which will allow the county to retain some of the fines for traffic offenses that currently go entirely to the state.

Commissioners declined, however, to eliminate a sales tax vendors fee outright, asking for its phased elimination. The fee allows retailers to keep a percentage of the sales tax revenue they collect for the county to cover their administrative costs. Eliminating the vendor fee entirely in 2010 would have produced a projected $180,000 in revenue, though the impact on an individual retailer would not have been large, said Tom Oken, the county’s chief financial officer.

Among cuts approved by commissioners, the salary freeze will save $266,310 annually. Travel and training expenses have been reduced by about $200,000.

The budget plan will retain a $4 million contingency fund, and, at the end of five years, the county will also have an undesignated surplus of $3.2 million despite the “buy-ups” approved by commissioners, Oken said.

The contingency fund may prove critical as the county is anticipating further state and federal funding cuts, Fletcher said.

Commissioners will continue to take a detailed look at expenditures and revenues on a quarterly basis next year and can adjust the budget accordingly. In May 2010, the county will know how much it collected in sales tax through March; that may be a decision point for commissioners, Fletcher said.

Not included in the general fund budget are various county operations that either have their own, dedicated mill levy or are otherwise self-sufficient. Those budgets, including the airport, landfill/recycling, open space, library and others, will be reviewed separately by commissioners.

janet@aspentimes.com