Three laid off to avert Pitco budget crisis | AspenTimes.com

Three laid off to avert Pitco budget crisis

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Pitkin County laid off three employees Tuesday, including one 18-year veteran, in an effort to head off a major budget crisis.

In a closed-door meeting yesterday morning, the county commissioners agreed to eliminate two managers and a front-line employee from the work force of roughly 195 employees.

The three departments affected by the cutbacks are environmental health, human resources/risk management, and building maintenance, which each lost one employee.

It is the first time the county has been forced to lay off employees since the 1991 recession. County Commissioner Mick Ireland said the number of employees working full time for the county government is now lower than when he was appointed to the board in 1993.

“These people we lost are dedicated and qualified, they are not deadwood,” Ireland said. “If the economy turns up and we need to hire more employees, it will be hard to find people as good as these people we had to let go.”

Yesterday’s layoffs bring the total number of job cutbacks in county government this year to nine. In January, the commissioners agreed to eliminate six positions that were unfilled at the time.

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The only direct impact on the public will be a slow down in the food safety inspection schedule at restaurants and other public facilities. Food safety is the responsibility of the environmental health department, but County Manager Hilary Smith said the department will focus its reduced resources on septic system inspections.

Smith said the commissioners don’t plan to make cuts that will affect county residents directly, for the time being, but more sweeping cutbacks will be necessary if voters don’t agree later this year to increase their property taxes.

She said the layoffs have been in the works for several weeks. Sales tax collections and fees, which make up two-thirds of the county’s revenues for its general fund, have been off sharply all year, Smith said.

When they were putting together the 2002 budget last fall, commissioners based spending plans on a projection that sales tax collections would fall 5 percent. In fact, sales taxes have been down 7.4 percent this year. The difference between the projection and reality has opened up a $1.9 million hole in the county’s general fund.

The fund pays for the majority of county services, including law enforcement, licensing, elections, the building department, road maintenance and snow removal, public works, health inspections and community development and planning.

The layoffs will save the county $240,000 a year in salary and benefits. The employees who lost their jobs will receive a severance package that includes several weeks of pay, any unused vacation and sick time, and employment counseling.

Smith said the severance package is identical for all three employees, even though their time with the county varies widely. “We understand the impact is the same regardless of the number of years worked,” she said.

The county commissioners will begin deciding in an open meeting next Tuesday how to cut day-to-day operational expenses further. The county implemented an across-the-board 5 percent reduction in operating expenses at the beginning of the year.

The commissioners plan to ask the voters to approve three tax questions in the primary and general elections that are meant to shore up the county budget. If all three questions are approved, the county will have about $2 million more in property taxes to use in the general fund.

The cost to property owners if all three questions pass is estimated at $99 annually for a $1 million home.

“If the voters do not approve a tax increase in November, we will make further cut backs,” Smith said. “But even if they approve the increase, we don’t think we’ll be reintroducing these positions.”

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com.]

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