Has county saved too much?

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Having extra money in the bank is usually a good thing. But at Tuesday night's public hearing on Routt County's financial situation, county commissioners and residents asked whether the county has saved too much money.

The county is in a "healthy" financial position, Finance Director Dan Strnad said. It has very little debt, nearly $1 billion in government and business capital assets, and about $32 million in net governmental assets. In 2002, its total expenses came to about $24.9 million, with total revenues of about $25.1 million.

The county also has just more than $20 million in reserves, Strnad said.

Having that much in reserves, resident Fred Wolf said, is simply too much.

Wolf said he would bet Routt County's financial situation is unique to all other counties in Colorado and possibly in the United States. He joked that Gov. Bill Owens would "love to have a balance sheet that looks like ours."

But then he said that the county has too much money set aside in reserves.

"I think in simple, global terms, we've gone from not much safety net," Wolf said -- which County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak corrected to 'no' safety net -- "to the other end of the spectrum, and I think it's time to move back."

The Routt County Board of Commissioners planned the public hearing at Wolf's request; he was one of the only attendees at the county's budget meeting in November, Stahoviak said.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the county's finances and get input from the public about whether the funding system should be changed.

With Wolf and four other residents attending, the meeting quickly turned into a smaller scale discussion than what commissioners had wanted.

Routt County operates on a pay-as-you-go funding system instead of a debt-service funding system. After starting this system in 1992, the county has been able to build up $20.5 million in reserves, Strnad said.

About $4.2 million of the reserve fund can be put toward roads and bridges, with another $2.2 million for cash flow and contingency, Strnad said, leaving $14.1 million for other needs, such as the construction of the new judicial center.

In Wolf's view, low interest rates means now is a good time to consider debt-service funding.

With pay-as-you-go funding, the county sets aside funds each year to provide for replacement costs of equipment and services. With debt-service funding, the county borrows money for purchases and pays the loan back with interest.

Wolf said he thinks the county's large reserves mean it should either tax residents less or spend more revenues on services. As for the judicial facility, he said he thinks funding two-thirds to 70 percent of its construction through debt would be a smart move.

County commissioners considered Wolf's comments, and said they would look into the budget issues.

"I think that we're certainly in better shape," compared to the county's financial position in the late 1980s, County Commissioner Dan Ellison said. "Do we need to have as much in the bank as we do? No. I think we're at the high end of reality."

County Commissioner Doug Monger agreed, saying that it's always important for the county to calculate accurate budgets and spend revenue well so that pools of money don't collect. He suggested that the commissioners consider the process they want to go through to determine how to use funds in the most efficient way.

Stahoviak said commissioners should schedule work time to continue the budget discussion that was sparked at Tuesday night's hearing.

She also said that while the hearing served the purpose of opening discussion on county spending policies, she wished that attendance had been higher.

"I think we were all hoping that more citizens would come out," she said.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or email sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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