Reiner: I’ll close offices one day a week if forced to cut budget
Tensions over Mesa County’s deteriorating budget situation came to a head Monday, when the clerk and recorder told commissioners she plans to close her offices one day a week if she’s forced to cut another 5 percent from the department’s budget.
In a public meeting that lasted more than an hour, Sheila Reiner told commissioners how her department voluntarily made an 8 percent overall budget reduction, which included some layoffs and the closure of the Fruita and Clifton motor vehicle offices. Commissioners announced last month they would ask all department leaders to cut 5 percent from their budgets this year to help balance the budget they adopted in December, which had a $2.7 million deficit.
“Our team proactively came forward with a solution as best as we could as far as we felt like we could cut, and then we’re getting another 5 percent put on top of that,” Reiner said.
Reiner said the commissioners’ request to cut another 5 percent across all county departments this year “is disincentivizing the good work that my team has done to find efficiencies to do more with less, to work harder, to push harder, to do with less budget. Because we came together, made a goal, my team got on board with it and they got behind their leader, and now they’re going to get cut deeper. So that feels extremely bad.”
She said the department has been doing more with less and that her office has reduced its staff by 20 percent over the past decade, while handling a 43 percent increase in voter registration and a 13 percent increase in vehicle registration during that time.
“You did step forward, but the reality is we just can’t wish this money will fall from the sky,” Commissioner Scott McInnis said.
Reiner also told the board she’s concerned that she has employees who have only been working in the motor-vehicle department for six months who are making the same salary as others who have been there for 10 years — $14.65 per hour — despite their experience or effectiveness.
Reiner had planned for “modest increases” based on years of employment and performance, as part of her reorganization of the department that included the 8 percent budget reduction overall, which was originally approved by commissioners. The transactions she requested to give some employees small raises were rejected in December by commissioners after they adopted the budget.
“I understand that you closed two offices and now you want to give raises to your employees,” Commissioner Rose Pugliese said. “We don’t have the luxury of giving raises right now.”
Commissioners said the budget situation is becoming so dire that they are trying to keep people in jobs, and cannot afford raises for anyone in the county.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult of a position this is to have to worry about the whole county,” Pugliese said. “It’s nice to be able to just worry about your own office.”
“Our numbers are getting uglier by the day,” McInnis said. “The problem is, we don’t have any low-hanging fruit anymore.”
Commissioners referenced a sales-tax report that shows a 30 percent decrease in revenue from telecommunications alone compared to last year at this time, which amounts to more than $90,000. Sporting goods, manufacturing and hotel and restaurant revenues are also down more than $130,000 compared to February 2016.
Reiner’s plan to close her department’s office one day a week will realize savings from furlough days, which she said 10 employees have volunteered to take for the rest of the year. Closing the office on Fridays would mean that marriage licenses, voter registration and other official recording would not be available to the public on those days.
Reiner also said she plans on reintroducing a proposal for a $5 in-person renewal fee as an incentive to encourage people to renew their plates online, something commissioners considered and rejected in 2015.
Pugliese recommended Reiner consider other options that would not affect the public as much, such as eliminating one of her deputy clerks to achieve the 5 percent budget savings. She also suggested that Reiner should become clerk to the commissioners herself and free up staff for serving the public.
McInnis confronted Reiner about her use of outside legal counsel, which she consulted about whether she had the autonomy to manage her own budget after it was allocated by the commission.
Reiner maintained that she has the authority to spend the money within her budget as she chooses, and asked commissioners to stop micromanaging her office.
“I’ve been elected to run the clerk and recorder’s office and I believe by you telling me what I can or cannot use the approved budget upon, it is beyond your authority,” Reiner said. “I would like to take some load off of you and assure you that I’m running my department.”
Reiner told The Daily Sentinel she has met with commissioners as a group or individually six times since September to discuss her budget concerns without resolution.
After Reiner’s presentation, several owners and workers from local vehicle-sales businesses addressed commissioners, expressing concerns that having Reiner’s office less available would negatively impact their businesses and cause a hardship.
Commissioners also rejected the idea of handling property tax appeals themselves, something Reiner suggested a week ago to save the county $10,000. Commissioners cited concerns that they were not qualified to handle property valuations.
“With us not having the background in evaluations, there’s a lot more opportunities for errors, which will have a negative impact on our constituents,” Pugliese said. “And it will also cause potentially a lot more appeals, which are very costly for the county and put a lot of pressure on our county attorney’s office.”
Commissioner John Justman also cited potential conflicts of interest in determining property values for businesses or individuals the commissioners know personally.
“It absolutely would not save money,” McInnis said.
The board voted unanimously to appoint four members to the board of equalization.