Mesa County budget cuts: ‘We are amputating limbs’
Paula Moore’s and John Bruce Dodson’s killers might very well be walking free today if not for the diligence of investigators in the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office.
Moore was raped and strangled inside a Grand Junction home in 1992. Dodson was shot to death in 1995 on the Uncompahgre Plateau in what his wife portrayed as a hunting accident.
Persistent DA investigators brushed off the dust and dug into both murders years later. Old-fashioned detective work and advancements in DNA technology helped them overcome the mistakes made in the Moore case and the hurdles in the Dodson case.
They arrested Glenn Torres for Moore’s slaying and Janice Hall for the killing of her husband, Dodson. Torres and Hall were convicted in 2000 and 2005, respectively, and are serving life sentences in Colorado prisons.
In less than four months, however, the quiet two-man division of the District Attorney’s Office that made a name for itself by solving violent crimes others couldn’t will be eliminated as part of a series of Mesa County budget reductions.
It has plenty of company on the chopping block.
Recession and revenue
County leaders, forecasting a $12 million, recession-driven decline in revenue next year, have ordered cuts that will sweep through every county department and result in the elimination of about 3 percent of the county’s work force. Department heads are in the process of conducting top-to-bottom reviews of their operations and identifying areas where they can trim.
This year, an 8 percent reduction in county spending was contained mostly areas that had the least effect on taxpayers. Next year, some of the largest cuts will slice into departments that interact the most with the public.
The Clerk and Recorder’s Office will close two of its motor-vehicle branches Oct. 1 and likely will shutter a third at the end of the year. The county is eliminating its share of funding for the Orchard Mesa Community Center Pool, casting the pool’s future into doubt, and it is shrinking its contribution to the Museum of Western Colorado, possibly resulting in reduced hours at two museum facilities.
And public safety, traditionally considered the sacred cow of budget cuts, will make some of the most significant sacrifices. The consequence will be a reduced law-enforcement presence in local schools and in the community at-large.
The Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office will chop a combined $2.5 million out of their budgets and account for two-thirds of the total layoffs.
“I think our general message is that the cuts are significant, and there will be impacts across the county in providing county services,” said Regional Services Director Tom Fisher, who oversees county facilities, parks and Grand Valley Transit.
County Commissioner Craig Meis said public-safety agencies — primarily the Sheriff’s Department — received the lion’s share of county investments when the local economy was strong, so it’s only fair for them to absorb a financial blow like other departments.
District Attorney Pete Hautzinger and Sheriff Stan Hilkey say they understand cuts are necessary. But they say the reductions will hamper their ability to investigate and prosecute crime at the level to which citizens are accustomed.
“I don’t think there is any question that between the cuts my office and the sheriff’s office are being forced to make, there’s going to be a very real diminution in public safety. And obviously I’m biased on this, but I very strongly believe there is no more core function in our society than public safety,” Hautzinger said.
Grand Valley local governments are approaching the end of a second consecutive year of a drop-off in revenue — the greatest since the oil-shale bust of the early 1980s — and officials say there’s little reason to believe it will rebound in 2011. The financial forecast may grow stormier in 2012, when the real-estate decline is expected to take a big bite out of the county’s property-tax dollars.
The $12 million revenue loss largely is a byproduct of the struggling economy. With the oil and gas industry stagnating, the county will receive $3.8 million less in severance tax this year than last. Through August, county sales-tax revenue was off 10 percent from the same time last year. Revenue from vehicle taxes and a federal program that compensates counties for providing various services on federal land will slide by nearly $3 million.
But the county also is having to make up for a $1.8 million accounting blunder the Finance Department uncovered earlier this year. County Finance Director Marcia Arnhold said employees in charge of payroll mistakenly charged 10 days worth of employee pay to the 2010 budget rather than 2009.
“We made a mistake,” Interim County Administrator Stefani Conley acknowledged.
The county’s proposed $127 million budget next year is 18 percent less than 2009 and the lowest since 2006’s $121 million budget.
The $23.8 million budget of the Sheriff’s Department is the largest of any county agency, and its budget for 2011 will be cut by the greatest amount.
Hilkey will slice a little more than $2 million by laying off 27 employees and reducing travel, training, equipment and supplies, although the sheriff hopes to hire back 12 employees to fill vacancies. Seven other employees will be demoted.
The effects will span all three areas of the department: law operations, jail operations and support services.
The law-enforcement side of the department will bear the brunt with 13 layoffs. One deputy is being let go from each of the department’s four patrol teams, meaning the number of deputies patrolling the county at any one time will drop from nine to eight.
The department will keep a school resource officer at Central High School but eliminate the officer positions at Grand Mesa, Mount Garfield and Redlands middle schools.
Hilkey termed those cuts “very painful,” noting those officers not only help prevent crime in school but build relationships and rapport with adolescents who may otherwise look upon law-enforcement with skepticism or disdain.
“The long-term gains and benefit of having three deputies in these middle schools ... can never be measured against the short-term exercise of finding money. And that’s unfortunate,” he said.
Tim Leon, safety coordinator for School District 51, said middle schools effectively will lose a staff member.
“One of the biggest things it’s going to impact is officer-to-student contact, that positive interaction,” he said.
District 51 officials are discussing how they will compensate for the partial loss of the program, which Leon said started locally in the early 1980s.
In the support-services division, which handles civil services, court services and internal affairs matters, the layoff of five records clerks will result in a scaling back of the hours the department’s front counter is open to the public. Hours will be slashed from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The county will eliminate its contract with a private company that provides three armed guards for security at the entrance to the Justice Center. Hilkey said deputies will pick up security duty, although that could result in a leaner law-enforcement presence in courtrooms.
Within the Justice Center, the District Attorney’s Office will lay off investigators Gil Stone and Dave Martinez, who together have worked for the county for more than 60 years. Their departure means the only law-enforcement agency that holds jurisdiction over every square mile of the county will no longer be able to investigate crimes, a fact that worries Hautzinger.
“A murderer is in prison because of the work (DA investigators) did,” he said, referring to the Dodson case. “If that same case were to happen next year, somebody would get away with murder, and I’m afraid that’s going to happen.”
In addition, Hautzinger said he will eliminate one prosecutor position, reduce work weeks of nonlawyer personnel to 36 hours and impose pay cuts and furlough days for himself and the highest-ranking prosecutors in the office.
“We are not cutting things to the bone. We are amputating limbs,” he said.
Motor vehicle branches
While it’s at or near the top of most residents’ lists in terms of importance, public safety isn’t the only area where budget cuts could affect their day-to-day lives.
The Clerk and Recorder’s Office plans to lop at least $500,000 out of its $2.3 million 2010 budget by closing three of its five motor vehicle branches. The offices on Orchard Mesa and at the courthouse will close Oct. 1, and the office in Fruita likely will close at the end of the year. The Clifton and Mesa Mall branches will remain open.
Although the Clifton and mall branches have handled nearly two-thirds of the 147,000 motor-vehicle transactions completed through August, Clerk and Recorder Janice Rich noted the three other branches were convenient for customers who live on the south and west ends of the county.
The office expects to lay off four employees and return more than $200,000 in leased voting machines.
“This will change the way we can assist the public and what the public has become used to,” Rich said.
Reductions to the Assessor’s Office’s budget are coming at a particularly inconvenient time, because 2011 is when employees revalue the 87,000 properties in the county.
Assessor Barb Brewer said she is faced with cutting 20 percent of her 30-employee staff. She said the remaining workers agreed to take a 10 percent pay cut to avoid additional layoffs.
The net result is customers who are accustomed to walk-in service and getting information about property values and sales within a matter of minutes or hours may instead have to call for an appointment and wait a day or two for information. Brewer said she also is concerned about maintaining timely and accurate information on the office’s website, a valuable tool for local real estate agents and others that receives 150,000 hits a month.
A 28-year employee of the county, Brewer said the budget cuts are more dramatic and carry more implications than those implemented in the wake of the oil-shale bust.
“People had places to go in the ‘80s,” she said. “This time, they don’t have any place to go because it’s (the recession) nationwide.”
Aside from affecting internal departments, budget cuts will be felt by outside agencies that receive allocations from the county.
The county will eliminate its $56,000 contribution to the Orchard Mesa Community Center Pool, which represents half of the pool’s operating money. The county will reduce its allocation to the Museum of Western Colorado by $25,000.
The implications for the pool are unclear at this point. Grand Junction City Manager Laurie Kadrich said the Parks and Recreation Department, which subsidizes the other half of the pool’s operating costs, doesn’t have money within its budget to make up for the loss of the county’s contribution, meaning it would have to pull dollars from somewhere else to maintain current service levels at the pool.
Museum Executive Director Mike Perry said the county’s contribution to the museum has fallen from $575,000 to $375,000 in the past four years. He said the museum executives are still analyzing their options but said the loss of funding could cause the museum to close the Cross Orchards Living History Farm, except for school visits or special events and reduce hours at the Museum of the West.
“It will come as a real disappointment to the people who appreciate Cross Orchards and the period of history it represents,” Perry said.
Cuts across other areas of the county could result in less frequent road maintenance, less frequent replacement of Grand Valley Transit buses, departments combining services, and reductions in employee benefits.
Several departments contacted by The Daily Sentinel declined to talk about specific cuts, saying details hadn’t been finalized and proposed measures hadn’t been approved by the county administration.
County commissioners will get an initial look at the budget next month and adopt it in December.
Revenue outlook bleak
For all of the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing, several county officials pointed out what they’re enduring is no different than many local households and businesses.
“It doesn’t take long to realize the public is going to go through it. Public safety can’t be immune from it,” Hilkey said.
“It’s not a bad exercise,” Rich said of the process of reducing spending. “We all do that in our personal lives, so why not in county government?”
“There’s a lot of people cutting off cable (television) right now,” Meis said. “There’s a lot of people looking at their own (profit and loss statements) to see where they can cut back.”
Some have questioned why the county doesn’t dip further into its overall fund balance, which is projected to decline nearly $5 million to $34.8 million next year, to make up for revenue losses. While county budget managers have stood firm on maintaining a 20 percent fund balance, the city of Denver indicated this week it plans to keep a 10 percent fund balance next year.
Acting Administrator Conley, though, said 20 percent of the county’s general fund balance isn’t as hefty as it may sound. That amount — $12 million — would cover the county’s payroll expenses for 2 1/2 months.
Meis said part of the reason the county administration pushed for major cuts this year is to brace for what’s coming in 2012 and possibly beyond. He said he’s hearing assessed property values will fall 10 percent, although he believes it could be closer to 20 to 30 percent.
“I don’t see this economic storm curing itself in the very near future,” he said.