Preliminary county budget is falling about $1 million short |

Preliminary county budget is falling about $1 million short

The Pitkin County Finance Department is in the midst of preparing a budget for next year, and is facing the particularly challenging task of digging up an extra $1.3 million.

Tom Oken, director of finance, said the search is under way because without the money, the county will fall far short of what’s needed to keep 268 miles of roads and 26 bridges in good condition.

“If you don’t put enough into your surface program, then you’re really throwing your money away,” Oken said. “Filling potholes and other minor surface repairs can take care of a problem for a while, but without resurfacing and maintenance, the road eventually fails. Then you have to rebuild it.”

Even if the money is found, however, spending it on roads is likely to ripple through the county budget, affecting everything from public safety to local nonprofit groups.

Oken is currently compiling budget requests from the various county departments into a package that can be presented to the public and the Pitkin County commissioners next month.

On Oct. 5, the commissioners are scheduled to kick off the annual budget process by reviewing the county weed control budget, Oken said. By the middle of the month, the commissioners will be spending most of their waking hours discussing specific budget needs with department heads.

“The most useful time for the public to comment is when the departments are making their presentations,” Oken said. By the time the formal public hearing is held in December, the time for debate and decision making has passed.

Roads were forced to the top of the county’s priority list last November, when voters rejected an increase in property taxes to cover road maintenance. The county had been asking for $1.5 million to make up for the loss of nearly $2 million in so-called road use taxes that expired on Dec. 31, 1998.

Without replacement funding, county government has been forced to look internally for the money. “We’ve made up some of the shortfall, but we haven’t come up with $1.5 million,” Oken said.

As things stand now, much of the shortfall will be covered by the general fund. The largest portion of the general fund, just over 29 percent in 1998, is spent on public safety – the sheriff, the district attorney, search and rescue, animal safety, the county coroner, detention and jail building upkeep, records and communications.

County Commissioner Mick Ireland said at first glance, he’s not sure the district attorney’s request to add an investigator to his office is possible.

The county’s spending is also handcuffed by the TABOR (Taxpayer Bill Of Rights) amendment and other state laws meant to curb public expenditures.

Other offices that are financed out of the general fund include clerk and recorder, elections, assessor, treasurer, planning, land management, environmental health, finance, information systems, risk management, county administration, county attorney and some human services.

Nonprofit organizations that receive money from the county each year may also feel the pinch, especially the nonprofits that were given money by the anonymous donor who gave $15,000 to help defray the costs of president Bill Clinton’s fund-raising visit in July, said Ireland.

“We’ll probably have to consider that donation in lieu of instead of on top of the money we normally contribute,” he said.

Added Oken, “When we consider nonprofits seeking support from the county, we have to look over all of their funding issues.”

Oken’s fairly confident he won’t find an extra million lying around, but there are other ways to find money around the county courthouse. A survey of county spending completed last spring found potential for considerable savings with changes in the way the county automobile fleet is managed.

Each time an employee quits, his or her position is scrutinized with an eye on elimination. Oken said that while no positions have been entirely absorbed by other employees, at least one high-paying management position has been eliminated.

“We haven’t found any magic area that had $1 million in inefficiencies, but we have found some savings at the margin,” he said.

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