Our View: Balanced budget needed

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Editorial Board, September 2008

  • Suzanne Schlicht, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Mike Lawrence, city editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter

Contact the editorial board at (970) 871-4221 or editor@steamboatpilot.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

— The economic news coming out of Wall Street and across the globe the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of staggering. The national economy is teetering on the brink of disaster, and the effects now are being squarely felt in the Yampa Valley, where construction has slowed, real estate sales have decreased dramatically and projections of the upcoming tourist season are sobering at best.

In many ways, it's good the uncertain state of our economy revealed itself before local governments approve their 2009 budgets. As the Steamboat Springs City Council and Routt County Board of Commissioners are learning, declining revenues and increasing expenditures make it difficult to achieve balanced budgets without making significant cuts.

The City Council therefore deserves commendation for its tough budget stand last week. After being presented a deficit budget to the tune of $1.9 million, council members directed city staff to return with a balanced spreadsheet. Using reserves to balance the $1.9 million deficit would have depleted our contingency fund by more than 15 percent.

Spending cuts won't be easy, but they are necessary.

City officials are considering a hiring freeze, layoffs, furloughs for city employees, creating enterprise funds to end subsidies for facilities such as Howelsen Hill and the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs, and slashing community support spending, among others.

The city is wise to consider all of the above, and more. Councilwoman Cari Hermacinski noted last week that city expenditures have increased 49 percent since 2004. That growth is understandable when considering the local economic boom of the past four years. But as we head into a very uncertain economic future, it similarly makes sense that our city budget would decrease. With less construction, for example, the need for services declines in certain city departments.

Budget cuts mean difficult decisions that have very real impacts on the lives of friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. We'd love to see a scenario under which $1.9 million could be slashed from the budget without laying off employees. But what's more important is that city officials determine the most appropriate level of staffing for our city given current and predicted circumstances.

The cost to operate and maintain facilities such as Howelsen Hill, Howelsen Ice Arena and the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs also deserves serious attention. The total annual subsidies for the three city-owned amenities amount to more than $1.3 million. That level of expenditure isn't reasonable or sustainable during difficult economic times, and it's prudent for the city to figure out how each facility can be self-sustaining - or at least much closer to self-sustaining than they are now.

It boils down to this: After years of profuse spending and growth, it's time our city focus on essential services and needs first. Balancing the 2009 budget will force city staff and officials to take a serious look at our priorities, while also demonstrating a commitment to sound government practices. These economic times call for nothing less.

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