Mesa County’s 2012 budget may signal rebound

Dakota Cole, left, and Tyler Ostowick of Current Solutions wire the motor vehicle room at the new Mesa County Services Facility on First Street. The target date for completion of the $7 million project is the end of the year.

Mesa County’s budget is expected to remain flat in 2012, an indication that county finance officers are cautiously optimistic that the local economy has hit bottom and is slowly rebounding.

The initial $130.2 million budget presented to county commissioners Thursday actually proposes nearly $1 million more in spending than the budget adopted by commissioners at the end of last year. It’s off 8 percent from 2010 and 16 percent from 2009.

A virtually unchanged spending plan offers a sliver of good news for departments and employees who have withstood two or three years’ worth of layoffs, benefit reductions and deep spending cuts. And while the county likely will fill a handful of vacant positions, reductions are in store for some programs.

County Administrator Chantal Unfug said she expects local governments forced to get leaner by the recession to remain that way for some time to come.

“We have to continue down this path responsibly,” she told commissioners. “We must not assume this will get better next year. We must continue to commit to build a smaller, more efficient government.”

After back-to-back years of declines in sales tax revenue, receipts are up nearly 9 percent so far this year. The county is proposing to bump up capital spending 13 percent in 2012 to $32 million, using the 1 percent allocation that comes from its 2 percent tax. Funding designated for capital projects can’t be redirected to other areas of the county’s budget.

But gains in sales tax are being offset by a drop in property tax revenue, which is expected to be down $3.3 million this year. The number of building permits issued in the county is forecast to plummet from 1,600 in 2003 to 313 by the end of this year.

“This has been a chain reaction throughout our entire community,” County Finance Director Marcia Arnhold said.

General fund spending, which subsidizes most county operations, will drop from $57 million in 2011 to $54.9 million next year.

Department heads 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.

Unfug said she will recommend to commissioners the county add some FTEs, though she said she doesn’t know yet how many. Sheriff Stan Hilkey said after Thursday’s budget presentation it appears the county is proceeding at this point with adding seven of the FTEs he requested, although he noted that could easily change over the next two months.

“We want to concentrate on providing good services and not get behind,” Hilkey said.

County officials are expected to try to find savings in the budget through areas such as the consolidation of several departments into the new Central Services facility at First Street and Colorado Avenue and the 65 positions that are currently vacant. Unfug said she and others will look at eliminating some posts that have been vacant for several months or years.

Employees will not see any reductions in their benefits or furlough days in 2012. An employee committee will examine whether the budget will allow for a pay raise for some workers, but additional compensation isn’t contemplated in the budget presented Thursday, Unfug said.

Commissioners will approve the 2012 budget in December.


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