County decides to watch and wait

Budget cutbacks probable in 2009 if revenues worsen

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Although Routt County is keeping its fingers crossed that budgetary predictions will hold and levels of service can be maintained in 2009, it is not too early to start prioritizing programs and decide what would be cut first, Commissioner Doug Monger said Tuesday.

Facing a projected $2.9 million revenue shortfall in next year's budget, Routt County will dip into its reserves next year to maintain existing services. If such spending continues without economic recovery or significant cutbacks, the county will burn through its Road and Bridge Department reserves by 2012, and its equipment pool funds by 2016, according to county finance officials.

Budget talks in recent months have focused on monitoring revenue streams very closely and ensuring the proposed budget remains realistic in practice.

"If we need to make some kind of adjustment, we're going to do it," Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

Given the most recent sales and use tax figures - for September - Routt County may be looking at an even steeper drop off, Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said, at Tuesday night's sparsely attended public budget hearing at the Routt County Courthouse.

On the revenue side, property taxes are the only county funding stream projected to increase in 2009, rising 6 percent to $15.7 million. But continued economic decline significantly could worsen the county's financial picture, requiring the commissioners to take a look at serious cuts next year.

"The (Steamboat) Ski Area is still looking at a 30 to 40 percent decrease in bookings," said county Finance Director Dan Strnad. Every 10 percent that skier days drop for the upcoming winter season translates to a $116,000 sales tax revenue loss not factored into the proposed 2009 budget, according to Strnad's budget overview.

"Hopefully, 2010 and the rest might provide some relief," Monger said. "This is really the first year : where we haven't been moving forward on something. It seems like we're just held in our tracks financially."

Budget priorities

At the start of the budgetary process for 2009, commissioners identified three major goals as maintaining levels of service across county departments, retaining the county's employee base and maintaining infrastructure, Monger said.

The county has avoided layoffs in part by having an intense review of all vacancies, eliminating positions if county staff determined it was not essential that they be filled. However, if revenues decline in ways that were unanticipated, or continue to decline at a faster-than-expected pace, the county will likely have to "re-examine" avoiding layoffs, Mitsch Bush said.

Staff members have been "surprised and pleased" that despite dire financials, the county still was able to budget a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for its employees for 2009, Stahoviak said.

The county budgeted for repairs on Routt County Roads 76 and 86, for the Cog Road slide and the Elkhead slide, but has put off other projects indefinitely, including reconstruction on C.R. 14 between Colorado Highway 131 and Stagecoach Reservoir.

The county will have to find funds in the private sector as well as reach out to the voters if the C.R. 14 improvements are to ever come to fruition, Mitsch Bush said.

Other "high priority" projects lacking funding include work on C.R. 76 near the county line, C.R. 179 at Saddle Mountain, C.R. 53 at the Hayden Divide, and C.R. 44 at the Lower Elk River crossing, according to county budget documents. Before any of those projects could go forward, the county first would have to come up with the $2.9 million missing elsewhere in the budget, then find funds for the improvements, County Manager Tom Sullivan said.

The commissioners are due to formally adopt the final budget Dec. 15.

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