County preserves reserves

Commissioners prioritize financial health over road improvements

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— The Routt County Board of Commissioners will maintain county reserves and avoid going into debt, even if it means waiting a few years to tackle infrastructure improvements.

During Tuesday's budget hearing, Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said the county is well aware of all the road improvements that need to be completed, but taxpayers have instructed the county to do the best it can with what funds it has - and that means prioritizing infrastructure projects.

Routt County's revenue is projected to increase $9.8 million in 2008, to $61.4 million. But because of rising costs, spending will increase $5.9 million to $70.9 million.

Although the county may not have a lot of revenue to spare, portrayals of the budget as being in a state of crisis are unfair, and county residents should expect the same level of service they have had in the past, Commissioner Doug Monger said.

"We're going to make ends meet and be able to do what we did last year," Monger said, adding that the proposed budget meets the county's goal of maintaining staffing and its corresponding level of service.

The county has what is considered a very reasonable 10 percent projected rise in health care costs for its employees, Finance Director Dan Strnad said, and areas of significant employee expansion are directly tied to staffing demand.

Expanded staffing costs for the Routt County Sheriff's Office to meet its goal of 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage include transferring funds from programs the office is no longer participating in, Strnad said. These programs include the drug and substance abuse education program D.A.R.E. and the All Crimes Enforcement Team, formerly known as the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team.

Also, the addition of nearly five "full-time equivalent" employees at Yampa Valley Regional Airport is directly tied to the expansion of seasonal flights from 18 to 22 weeks this winter, Strnad said.

Commissioners defended their plans for funding infrastructure improvements and maintaining reserves.

Referendum 1A, a ballot measure which aimed to fund 21 road and bridge infrastructure projects by freeing Routt County property taxes from a state statute limiting revenue growth, failed by a wide margin in the Nov. 6 election. In absence of those funds, the county had temporarily abandoned most of those proposed projects to avoid going into debt or digging into its reserves.

Improvements to Routt County Road 14 are the priority next year, and that project alone is going to cost at least $7.8 million, Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said. The commissioners also are talking with the Road and Bridge Department about widening the shoulders of C.R. 129.

North Routt resident Fred Wolf took issue with the commissioners' conservative stance on infrastructure funding.

Wolf told commissioners during Tuesday's hearing that some of the proposed road improvements are too important to wait, and that the county's anticipated $9.4 million in unrestricted reserves are substantial enough that some of the projects can be undertaken now.

Wolf said the commissioners are saving money for 2017 rather than fixing the roads today.

Stahoviak said that's the right way for the county to proceed.

"Personally, I feel that the policy we have in place is supported by the majority of our citizens regarding equipment replacement and infrastructure replacement," Stahoviak said.

Routt County's total reserve fund is projected to decrease by 3 percent in 2008, to $27.2 million.

Maintaining reserves is critical because the county has many important and expensive infrastructure projects looming in the future, including expansion of its detention and law enforcement dispatch centers, Mitsch Bush said.

The commissioners are expected to formally adopt the final version of the county's 2008 budget at their Dec. 11 meeting.

- To reach Melinda Dudley, call 871-4203

or e-mail mdudley@steamboatpilot.com

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