County riding rough economic waves

Mesa County Commissioner Steve Aquafresca talks to a constituent before his part the “State of the County” speech in the old courthouse as commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland listen this morning.

As local unemployment climbs, and the number of people applying for food stamps and the number of households immersed in foreclosure continue to rise, the Mesa County
Commissioners smiled and tried to put the best face they could on county issues Wednesday during their state of the county address.

The message the three attempted to convey was clear: “We have been budgeting conservatively over the last several years,” Commissioner Craig Meis said. “We are ready to weather this economic storm.”

Indeed, the economic seas are roiling. Meis used a sea storm analogy during his speech, saying this storm will test everyone’s sea legs. By the time the calm returns, we will all know who the sailors are, he said.

Steve Acquafresca, chairman of the commission, said Mesa County is in good economic hands, due in large part to years of fiscally sound county budgeting.

“We’re taking steps to make sure it stays that way,” he said.

The signs of economic trouble are obvious in the numbers: Residential building permits in Mesa County dropped from 2,532 in 2007 to 1,847 in 2008; residential subdivision lots being recorded dropped from 564 in 2007 to 255 in 2008; foreclosures are up 40 percent, comparing the first two months of 2009 to 2007; and unemployment claims jumped from 254 in October to 356 in December.

“Certainly we have had more (unemployment claims) since then,” Commissioner Janet Rowland said.

To help everyone steady themselves, the county is bulking up some services, Rowland said.

The Mesa County Workforce Center, 2897 North Ave., is offering more training and assistance, and the Mesa County Health Department has started a program, “Bridges Out of Poverty,” to assist the working poor, she said.

The county has cut its budget this year by 3 percent, but at the same time it is increasing the amount of money it spends on “well-planned and developed communities” to 32 percent of the budget. The category is one of five, broad budgeting umbrellas the county uses to organize its budget. The others are economic vitality, public resources, health and public safety.

Feeding funds into the well-planned-communities category now is intended to have the county well-positioned for when the economy rebounds.

The bulk of the new investment will be for infrastructure, such as roads and other traffic improvements, Acquafresca said. The county may receive a good-sized share of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, which could keep many construction workers on the job, if not create new employment, he said.

When times are rough, Acquafresca said, “Citizens need more from their local government.”


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