Steamboat Springs Routt County Assessor Mike Kerrigan had words of encouragement for his fellow department leaders Friday as they tackled the prospect of laying off as many as 30 employees this spring and then cutting a couple of new holes in their belts.
Kerrigan's department already is down 1.75 workers after the county hiring freeze, and he said his staff is making the best of it.
"It's making us smarter, better, harder workers," Kerrigan said. "My employees are grateful for their jobs, and we're working better now. They're learning new skills that will help them in their future careers."
It was a change of tune for Kerrigan, who in late February made a special appeal to have the county's hiring freeze waived so that he could replace outgoing deputy assessor Cynthia Bedell. He added that in July 2008, he voluntarily gave up a position after an employee left and he could anticipate the changing workload.
The assessor made his remarks near the end of a day-long session convened by the county commissioners and County Manager Tom Sullivan. They discussed breakdowns of each department's budget and weighed the impacts of four different means of reducing payroll expenditures: reducing the county's $280,000 overtime budget, employee furloughs of four hours per week, 10 percent wage reductions and layoffs.
The possibility of county layoffs came to the forefront March 12, when Sullivan sent an email to employees alerting them to the fact that the projected county budget shortfall had grown in the first two months of the year by $2.2 million, from $2.7 million to $4.9 million.
Sullivan let the employees know that layoffs of as many as 30 employees were a possibility by late spring.
The 25 managers and county leaders who gathered in the courthouse Friday talked about curtailing personnel costs but didn't make any decisions about how and when it might take place.
County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said she wants a transparent policy that is understood throughout the courthouse and one that includes well-defined criteria for making decisions about any future layoffs. And she doesn't approve of any layoffs happening until after March sales tax receipts are known, sometime in May.
"We have to have the data on layoffs before we lay anyone off," Mitsch Bush said.
"Not necessarily," Commissioner Doug Monger disagreed. "If a department isn't busy, it could happen sooner."
Planning Director Chad Phillips said some courthouse workers would rather learn about their fates sooner than later.
"There is a morale issue, too," Phillips said. "Staff just wants to know."
Monger promised the commissioners would make the hard decisions.
"We're going to take the heat for this," he said.
Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak agreed emphatically that it would be the commissioners making the final decisions on which jobs go.
"We're eliminating positions, we're not laying off people," Stahoviak said.
The county already has planned to address the original budgeted revenue shortfall of $2.7 million by dipping into reserves. Sullivan reassured departments that county leaders would not try to recover the entire projected shortfall of $4.9 million in the second half of 2009, but there is a determination not to erode reserves further, he said.
Sullivan said Finance Director Dan Strnad had reported that if the trend continued, Road and Bridge Department reserves would be used up by 2012.
"The 2010 budget, that is when we need to get balanced and on budget," Sullivan said. "There will be no pay raises, no new equipment and no new holidays. It's not going to be your historic budget process."
Road and Bridge Director Paul Draper said he hopes Routt County won't settle for just maintaining the status quo during the economic crisis. Instead, he said, he hopes the county will use the belt tightening process to get stronger.
"We can seize an opportunity to become a more efficient, effective organization and recover as a stronger organization, not just an organization that held on tight during the recession," Draper said.
"In the last two months, we've experienced that in my office, and I'm grateful for it," Kerrigan said.