Sales tax revenue helps county during lean budget times

Photo by Dean Humphrey—Cashier Stana Olsen rings up a sale for Jim Crook and Deb Imlah of Crawford at Cabela’s in Mesa Mall. Sales tax revenue for Mesa County increased 11 consecutive months through July, a trend that could offset a decline in property tax revenue when county officials prepare a budget for 2012. Telling department managers “to stay flat is a good, cautious approach,” Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said of budget preparations.

Two of Mesa County’s primary sources of revenue are heading in opposite directions, an indication the county’s 2012 budget could bear a strong resemblance to the scaled-back 2011 version that triggered dozens of employee layoffs, pay and benefit reductions and, in some cases, service cutbacks.

A mixed bag consisting of a drop in property tax dollars and an upswing in sales-tax receipts likely won’t translate to significant additional cuts, but it may not result in the restoration of dollars and positions lost last year, either.

Asked this week by County Administrator Chantal Unfug what message she should relay to department heads who are preparing to submit budget requests next week, commissioners said they would like to reinstate retirement benefits that were eliminated, assuming funds are available, but they warned that employees should be prepared to cut if necessary.

“Telling them to stay flat is a good, cautious approach,” Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said.

The decline in the real estate market led the county’s total assessed valuation to fall 13 percent, from $1.96 billion in 2010 to $1.7 billion in 2011, according to Assessor Barbara Brewer. Preliminary estimates show property tax revenue may drop $3.4 million, although Finance Director Marcia Arnhold noted that number could change before the end of the year.

On the flip side, the county just completed its 11th straight month of sales-tax growth after 21 consecutive months of declines. Through July, the county had pulled in $10.2 million in receipts, a 9.2 percent increase over the same time last year.

While those numbers indicate shoppers are spending more and the local economy may be stabilizing, Arnhold noted county leaders remain cautious about spending.

“The county is in a conservative mode. The departments know we’re in a conservative mode. We always have been,” she said.

Money from property and sales taxes accounts for 37 percent of the county’s revenue.

The county entered this year with a $129 million budget — 9 percent less than 2010 — and $13.5 million in the fund balance of its general fund. The cuts included a 3 percent reduction in the county’s workforce, the elimination of the county’s contribution to employees’ retirement plans and fewer work hours in several departments.

Budget managers tentatively predict the fund balance of the general fund will grow by $2 million to $15.5 million heading into 2012, which could give the county some wiggle room in its budget.

Department managers and elected officials who have been meeting with commissioners the last several weeks have inquired as to whether employees will see pay raises or merit increases after going the last few years without either, noting they have lost workers to higher-paying jobs. County Budget Manager Eleanor Thomas told commissioners she knows of three departments that will seek to add employees next year.

Meis said if funds are available, his top priority would be to reinstate the county’s 1 percent contribution to employees’ retirement plans, and he’d also like to financially reward employees who have worked the hardest to find efficiencies or make do with less. But the board thus far has given no indication it is inclined to add to the 960 or so employees currently on the payroll.

Brewer, who met with commissioners this week, said she would like Assessor’s Office employees’ wages to be returned to 2010 levels after they took a 10 percent pay cut this year. Commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland responded by saying they didn’t know where the money for that would come from.

“I don’t see us doing anything above and beyond last year’s budget based on our current projections,” Meis told Brewer.


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