County institutes hiring freeze

Routt manager: Area revenues are declining at a severe rate

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— Fearing deeper revenue declines than budgeted, Routt County government has instituted a hiring freeze that applies to all positions vacated as of Tuesday.

County Manager Tom Sullivan said the move - unanimously approved by the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday - is a precautionary and temporary measure while he and department heads continue to develop a process to strategically trim the budget.

County officials said the move was not spurred by any data, such as December sales tax receipts, which they said have not been made available. County revenues fell short of the budgeted amount by $2.7 million in 2008, and the county has budgeted for a similar decrease in 2009. Commissioner Doug Monger said the hiring freeze was not contemplated as part of the process to develop a 2009 budget.

"Our fear is things might get worse than what we budgeted for," said Monger, who described the move as a proactive step that will hopefully allow the county to avoid more drastic, emergency steps at a later date if the economic downturn persists.

Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said the move was colored by other information such as a decline in construction activity in the county, which has a significant impact on excise and building-use tax collections.

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the construction industry employed 17 percent of Routt County's work force and was the county's largest industry as of the second quarter of 2008. In December, 4,400 construction jobs were lost statewide, according to the department.

"We're not freaked out, but what we're trying to do is be prudent," Mitsch Bush said.

The city of Steamboat Springs previously took a similar step by freezing 11 open positions and eliminating three.

In its resolution authorizing the freeze, the county included a caveat that would allow positions to be filled only if there would be "severe public health, safety or welfare consequences." That doesn't mean positions such as an emergency dispatcher or Sheriff's Office deputy would automatically be filled if vacated, however. Sullivan outlined a scenario where department heads could petition to have a position filled and those requests would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

"They will not be filled unless there's a really good reason for it," Stahoviak said.

Sullivan said he knows about three positions that will be affected by the freeze. The Routt County Sheriff's Office, which operated under a hiring freeze at the end of last year because of anticipated cost overruns, will be allowed to fill all its open positions, Sullivan said, because they were open prior to Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, the commissioners approved spending $260,000 to purchase nine vehicles for several county departments. Sullivan and the commissioners said there was no inconsistency in directing the purchases while also instituting a hiring freeze because the county maintains a separate motor pool budget outside of its operating fund. They also said that by the time county vehicles are being replaced at 100,000 miles, increased maintenance costs and lost productivity would outweigh any benefit in delaying the purchases.

-To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210 or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com

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