Mesa County may have to cut $3M to $5M from budget

Mesa County’s budget knife will not slice as deep in 2012 as it did this year, but a decline in property tax revenue and the continued shakiness of the local economy means more cuts are in store.

County commissioners took their first peek at next year’s spending plan Monday and were told that a year after hacking $9 million out of the budget, they’ll be asked to approve trimming another $3 million to $5 million.

“Because of your responsible watch on money, we’re doing OK,” County Administrator Chantal Unfug told the board. “We’re going to have to make some reductions, but it won’t be as much as last year.”

Commissioners spent about 90 minutes with Unfug and Budget Manager Eleanor Thomas, reviewing department heads’ requests for funding and employee teams’ rankings of those requests.

Thomas said the county will lose about $3.3 million in property tax dollars due to the decline in the real estate market and that departments’ current budget offers exceed last year’s funding by $1.7 million. The county entered this year with a $129 million budget, which was 9 percent less than 2010 and featured a 3 percent reduction in the county’s work force, the elimination of the county’s contribution to employees’ retirement plans and fewer work hours in several departments.

Since receiving individual budget submissions, Unfug said she has asked department heads to resubmit requests that reflect 5 and 10 percent reductions.

Department heads have asked to add 15.5 full-time equivalent employees to the county’s roughly 960-employee base next year. Ten of those requested FTEs came from the Sheriff’s Department, which eliminated 31 positions this year in taking the biggest hit dollar-wise.

“We just feel like some of those cuts have been too deep,” said Hilkey, who has asked to restore positions in all three areas of the department: law operations, jail operations and support services.

The sheriff said the implementation of a new records-management system this year has been challenging and is more resource-intensive than the old system. More records clerks are needed to keep up with daily tasks, he said.

Hilkey also is seeking to bring back a complex-crimes investigator, noting that the department’s current team of investigators is falling behind on follow-up work in child sex-assault cases.

“We understand the situation we’re in. We understand the economy,” he said. “These are not luxury items by any means. These are needs.”

Unfug said county officials are looking at a number of short- and long-term options to bridge the budget gap, such as eliminating positions, leaving open vacant posts, enacting furloughs and dipping into reserve funds. The county’s policy is to maintain a 10 percent fund balance in its general fund. It currently has roughly a 20 percent cushion in there.

“I think we could probably use a little bit, but I think we should be really conservative,” Unfug told commissioners.


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