Pitkin County will wait and see on ’09 budget | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County will wait and see on ’09 budget

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” While some local governments institute slash-and-burn tactics to trim their budgets, such as emergency wage freezes and other measures to cope with the slumping economy, Pitkin County officials have taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the coming year.

One measure of the county’s conservative outlook, said County Manager Hilary Fletcher, is the fact that she is leaving vacant four positions in two departments ” environmental health and finance ” as officials evaluate departmental efforts to cut costs and improve efficiency.

In the meantime, Pitkin County officials await the arrival of sales tax numbers for December to learn what that data might mean for the county’s budget for the coming year.

The county, along with the city of Aspen and other jurisdictions in the Roaring Fork Valley, have been grappling with the question of how best to deal with the effects of a global recession.

The city of Aspen, upon learning last week that its sales tax receipts in December dropped by nearly 20 percent, announced an immediate wage freeze to go along with a hiring freeze enacted late in 2008.

“We have been making systematic reductions,” Fletcher said of the county’s own efforts.

She said the county drastically cut its general-fund support of the road and bridge department’s capital improvements budget, from $1.9 million to about $400,000. That cut came at the same time county voters rejected a proposal to raise property taxes to provide a permanent funding base for roads and bridges

In other areas, Fletcher said, officials have “identified some one-time savings” that have helped fatten what she called “our bank account” of about $6 million.

For example, she noted that over the past two years the county has been pulling in more revenues than expected in fees paid to the Community Development Department, to the tune of more than $2 million. Rather than simply inject the unanticipated income into the budget, she said, it has been dropped into the reserve account as “a sort of rainy-day fund.”

Pitkin County, in its budget for 2009, predicted a 3 percent overall drop in sales tax income, falling to $6.8 million from $7.4 million in 2008. This is coupled with a 20 percent decrease in fees paid to the Community Development Department, as well as decreased fees for the clerk’s and treasurer’s offices.

The county’s budget is funded mainly by a combination of sales and use taxes (30 percent), property taxes (25 percent) and fees from the treasurer, community development department and clerk’s office, among other sources, county finance director John Redmond explained.

As adopted, the budget calls for revenues and expenditures of more than $23 million for what are termed “core services,” including the general fund ($19.6 million), roads and bridges ($3.2 million) and social services ($957,500).

Fletcher said during last year’s budget discussions that the county’s $6 million in surpluses could be used to offset drastic drops in revenues, as a way to avoid cutting services to county residents.

According to Redmond, December sales tax figures should be known within a week or so, which will give county officials an idea of whether their budgetary projections, made late last year as the recession just got rolling, were accurate.

Fletcher said she probably will wait, possibly until getting sales tax numbers for January and February of this year, before making any recommendations to the county commissioners for changes to the 2009 budget.

“We’re in a good financial position to make thoughtful adjustments to our budget,” she said.


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