County to hold budget hearing

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Residents can speak their minds tonight about Routt County's proposed 2006 budget.

Although revenues are set to increase, the county also faces significant cost increases. Among the most challenging aspects of the budget were increases in health insurance, major capital projects and increases in energy and petroleum costs, said Dan Strnad, county finance director.

Routt County officials have said they want to attract and retain qualified employees, but the 2006 budget outlook may make that more difficult.

The 2006 personnel budget is $16.4 million, an increase of 7 percent from last year. One catalyst for the county's costs increase is a $621,000, or 5 percent, compensation increase for employees who perform satisfactorily. The compensation increases are intended to help keep county pay competitive with that of similar entities.

Total benefit costs the county must pay also are increasing to 12 percent, or $444,000, from 2005. Thirty-three percent of that total increase results from health insurance.

If the county had renewed the same health insurance benefit plan it had this year, the cost would have increased 79 percent, said Dan Strnad, finance director. After reviewing options, the county was able to reduce the change to 33 percent.

To accommodate this change, employees will face increased deductible costs and out-of-pocket maximums. The county also will eliminate the wellness program, which provided $600 in benefits annually to qualified employees. The change also will require employees to contribute monthly to their health insurance plans, something they have done before but did not do this year. Individuals will pay $25, and families will pay $56.

In 2004, county officials asked employees what kind of health insurance change would be preferable. They said that a structure similar to next year's, where the majority of costs go to those who need more medical care, was the best, Strnad said.

"If you get sick, you're gonna pay," Strnad said. "The employees said the people who use it should pay for it."

Strnad said that the shift is a concern. Wording in the budget document reflects that.

"The question remains, will the decrease in the health insurance benefit to employees, impact the County's ability to attract and retain qualified employees," the budget reads. "In addition, the County is very concerned with the cost of health insurance in the future, since 73 percent of the high-dollar claims are considered ongoing and will not end in the near future."

Only 15 to 20 claims account for more than 70 percent of the county's health insurance costs, Strnad said.

He said workers' compensation decreased 15 percent from 2005 because of improvement to the claims experience as well as training and safety efforts.

The Board of County Commissioners will take comments and questions from employees from 5 to 6 p.m. tonight in the Commissioners' Hearing Room. The hearing is one of several the county has held with employees.

-- Dana Strongin

Revenues are estimated at $64.8 million, an increase of 15 percent over the 2005 budget. One major source of increased revenue is the coal-haul fees the county expects to collect from Xcel Energy. The company has received approval to haul about 1.8 million tons of coal along Routt County Road 27 from the Twentymile Mine to Hayden Station in 2006; the company must pay $3 a ton to do so. The fees go toward construction projects on C.R. 27.

Also bringing money to the county will be an 18 percent increase in property tax revenue, based on two voter-approved increases: for Horizons to support clients with mental retardation, and for Purchase of Development Rights to preserve ranchlands and natural areas.

The county's capital budget is the largest in history. The largest project could be the construction of a new justice center by the jail. County officials allocated $14 million for the project but say they are not sure that price will hold, Strnad said. One possible catalyst for an increase in construction costs may be the recent hurricanes that struck the United States, he said.

"Until we get that bid back, we will not know what that number is going to be," Strnad said. "We're in a holding pattern right now."

County officials also allocated $12.6 million in capital funds for Yampa Valley Regional Airport improvements, including $6.5 million for the second phase of the terminal expansion project, and $4.8 million for construction of a new commercial apron and rehabilitation of an existing commercial apron, where planes park.

The justice center project contributes to a 20 percent increase in expenditures from 2005. The project is budgeted for construction entirely in 2006, instead of being split like other projects have.

Also affecting expenditures are personnel costs. County officials are proposing a 5 percent increase in compensation costs for the county, with a step and market increase for employees who perform satisfactorily. The county also expects to see a 12 percent increase in benefits costs. If the 2006 budget is approved as is, county employees will face increases in health insurance costs, as will the county.

The 2006 infrastructure budget is $8 million, a 49 percent increase from last year. Most of the projects are on roads and bridges and are funded by infrequent and unusual money sources, such as energy impact grants or, in the case of C.R. 27, coal haul permit fees. County officials consider the projects as replacement, not improvement, of infrastructure, and they are concerned that the county may not be able to provide enough service to meet the demands growth is creating, Strnad said.

"Until we find out what some projects will do to us, we're not doing improvements."

The public meeting will be the last hearing for people to comment until the Routt County Board of Commissioners reviews the budget for adoption on Dec. 13. County officials held a separate road and bridge budget public meeting earlier in the budgeting process.

-- To reach Dana Strongin call 871-4229 or e-mail dstrongin@steamboatpilot.com

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