The buck tops here

Routt County Commission proposes big budget for 2005

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Big -- that's the word Routt County Finance Director Dan Strnad uses to describe Routt County's proposed 2005 budget.

"It's big for us," Strnad said. "We're doing a lot this year."

Next year, the county will take on two large-scale projects: building a new justice center and building the next phase of a terminal expansion project at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

The $15.8 million estimated cost of the justice center will be paid in part with reserves and in part with certificates of participation, a type of bonded debt, and the $12 million terminal expansion and $2 million apron rehabilitation at the airport will be paid with grants.

Funding more than $20 million in capital projects in one year is not typical for the county, Strnad said.

Plus, the county is spending a total of $5.4 million on infrastructure, a 100 percent increase from the 2004 budget, mostly because of $3.7 million in federal and state funding for the reconstruction of a section of Routt County Road 27 and for reconstruction of the McGregor Bridge.

Big projects do not only mean more debt payments and more grants, but also more time and effort spent by county employees who have to handle the projects, Strnad said.

"Routt County has never spent that much money in either

capital or infrastructure," he said. "These are really big years for us."

The county's revenues are doing well in some areas but falling short in others, allowing the county to meet goals such as providing employees with salary increases based on market values and a good benefits package, but not goals such as fully funding the county's capital equipment replacement pool, Strnad said.

Department directors again were asked to hold their budgets at or below 2003 levels, Strnad said, which means it's critical for the county to manage its services and internal resources well.

"We're asking a lot, I think," he said.

Routt County residents will have a chance to make comments on the 2005 proposed budget Tuesday, with county commissioners scheduled to adopt the budget Dec. 14.

Revenues

The two largest hikes in the county's revenues are from federal grants, to be used mostly for the airport, and the issuance of certificates of participation, to be used for the justice center.

Certificates of participation are not true revenue, though, because they represent debt that the county has to pay back.

The county's main source of revenue -- property taxes -- is expected to increase by 5 percent from 2004, to reach $10.7 million.

Sales tax revenues also are expected to increase by 10 percent, to $4.9 million.

State revenues, however, likely will decrease by 17 percent from the 2004 budget, for a projected total of $3.5 million. About 30 percent of that decrease is from expected decreases in user tax funds, which come from people buying gas at the pump. Higher fuel prices and a weak state economy could contribute to that decrease, Strnad said. The remainder of the decrease comes from grants that were received in 2004 but not 2005.

Federal revenues will shoot up by 180 percent to $13 million, again most notably because of a grant for YVRA.

Fees are anticipated to increase almost 30 percent from the 2004 budget, to $6.8 million. Of that increase, $900,000 comes from coal-haul fees that will be used with an Energy Impact Assistance grant to reconstruct a section of Routt County Road 27.

Building inspection fees are anticipated to increase by about $290,000, and passenger and airline fees collected at the airport are expected to increase by $217,000.

This year, if an Army Corps permit to fill wetlands at the site of the proposed justice center is issued, construction on the building could begin in the spring. At that point, the county would issue $8.8 million in certificates of participation to pay for the building, Strnad said.

County commissioners are waiting to hear whether such a permit will be issued, and if it is not issued, they will have to consider other options for building the center.

Expenditures

Increased spending is seen across the board, but is mostly because of spending one-time grants or incurring new debt through certificates of participation.

As in the past three years, department directors were instructed to budget for their 2005 operations needs at 2003 actual levels or below, Strnad said.

"They tightened up," Strnad said. "They did a good job of doing that."

"I think we're starting to feel some of the push," Strnad added, saying that many department officials would like to do more than their funds allow.

Next year, he said, maybe the county can change gears and allow for some increases.

A look at capital expenditures highlights the airport terminal expansion, which is scheduled for 2005, and the construction of a new justice center to be the largest costs. Debt payments on the justice center and the YVRA will total $1.1 million a year.

The county is underfunding its equipment replacement pool by about $175,000. In 2004, the pool was underfunded by $130,000.

"Something has to give, and this is one of the areas we're having some give in," Strnad said.

Although underfunding the pool does not pose a problem to the county in the near future, it could in 10 years or so when the county has to replace a lot of equipment and will not have the funds set aside, he said. The option then is to take out debt, but Strnad said the county prefers to save for the future to avoid paying interest on debt.

The personnel budget includes a proposed 6 percent increase for a total of $15.4 million. That increase is because of rises in employee salaries meant to bring pay up to market levels, paying for a 16 percent increase in health insurance and adding salaries for new jobs.

County officials agreed to fund a new deputy district attorney for the 14th Judicial District and a new part-time cook at the Routt County Jail. A new position of "terminal and landside manager" at YVRA was created but will be paid for by the airlines and other airport fees.

Providing good salaries and benefits is important to retaining good employees, especially when the county is asking its employees to do more without extra funding, Strnad said.

"Hopefully that's what (increased salaries and benefits) are accomplishing out there," he said. "Nothing really happens without the people. ... If (they're) pleased, they're going to do a much better job."

The Road and Bridge Department is about $660,000 short of being fully funded, which means it is not setting aside enough funds to replace and repair bridges, replace equipment or chip-and-seal all roads every five years.

That also means no gravel roads will get paved, and reconstructing phase 4 of Routt County Road 14 has been put on the backburner again.

Because of road and bridge grants, the department is able to complete two large projects: reconstructing a section of Routt County Road 27 and reconstructing the McGregor Bridge.

The county's reserves will decrease slightly to $25.1 million but could be cut in half in the next six years, reaching $13.3 million.

Having a good chunk of money in reserves is helpful as the county tries to get good rates for the debt it plans to take out, Strnad said. Typically, the county has about 10 percent of its expenditures in reserves.

A public discussion of the county's proposed 2005 budget is at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Commissioners Hearing Room of the Routt County Courthouse Annex. County commissioners are scheduled to adopt the budget Dec. 14.

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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