Sheriff, DA press Mesa County commissioners on budget
A 1.5 percent cut proposed for the District Attorney’s Office and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department next year may be less severe than the up to 4.5 percent cuts planned for other county budget departments. But after four years of losing revenue and employees, the heads of both departments say the cuts have gone past tossing fat and begun hitting metaphorical bone.
“We are bleeding. Our femoral artery is pouring out blood and my agency is dying as a result of that,” 21st Judicial District Attorney Pete Hautzinger told Mesa County commissioners after they reviewed the county’s proposed 2014 budget Monday morning.
Hautzinger said a 1.5 percent cut to his department, which spends 98 percent of its money on personnel, doesn’t make sense when he is already losing employees to private practice and jobs that pay more. District attorney’s office salaries have been frozen since 2009. The department has experienced 100 percent turnover since that year.
Hautzinger told commissioners he understands they are losing revenue in 2014 due to lower property valuations and flat sales tax projections, but he’s worried about losing employees who would have otherwise spent their careers serving as public prosecutors.
“I’m urging you to stop the bleeding. Give me the tools I need to continue building the best district attorney’s office in the state,” Hautzinger said. “I think it’s time to go deeper into the fund balance to get us through this period and keep public safety alive and viable.”
The county’s general fund has a projected fund balance — the money left over after revenue, transfers and anything left from 2013 are poured into expenditures — anticipated to be $11.4 million next year, or 20.5 percent of the county’s anticipated appropriations and transfers. That percentage has fluctuated over the last few years, but is above the 15 percent Hautzinger said many other Colorado counties maintain in their budgets.
Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey echoed Hautzinger’s call for using more of the fund balance, telling commissioners his department has been able to eliminate the equivalent of 27 full-time positions since 2010 without sacrificing many services the public can see. He’s worried that could change next year if the department has to cut 1.5 percent.
Hilkey offered the county’s alternative sentencing unit, street crimes unit or rural deputies program as possible places to cut in an administration-requested scenario for eliminating up to 5 percent of the Sheriff’s Department budget. The alternative sentencing unit is the most likely to go if the 2014 budget is adopted with a 1.5 percent cut, Hilkey said. He said the unit helps judges sentence people for less serious crimes without making them miss work and aims to cut down on recidivism.
“I would ask that in the coming weeks…that you ask where best to take the risk — with public safety over the long run or say this is a time where contingency funds should be used?” Hilkey said.
Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said the county has already dipped into fund balance reserves but did not say if commissioners would go further or not as they discuss and finalize the budget for final adoption Dec. 9.
Mesa County Administrator Tom Fisher said the county is projecting a 5.2 percent downturn in revenue in 2014 compared to 2013. The general fund is expected to decrease from $54.6 million to $52.5 million and overall county funds are expected to decrease their budgets from $157.4 million to $148.6 million. Public safety is expected to take a 1.5 percent hit and public infrastructure will likely see 1.7 percent to 1.8 percent cuts year-over-year, while other departments will absorb more of the revenue decline.
Fisher said the county anticipates some budget help from switching its employee clinic operations from Novia to Community Hospital. He also said the county plans to cut about 15 percent of its spending on outside partners, such as Mesa County Partners, the Grand Junction Business Incubator, Strive and Colorado Mesa University. At least one of those partners, Grand Junction Economic Partnership, was informed Monday all of their county funding will likely be cut next year.