2014 budget calls for healthy increase
by Rick Langenberg:
During the financial crunch of the last few years, concerns mounted about pending layoffs and even a possible reduction in services for the Teller County government. In fact, the Teller budget, and the lack of money, emerged as a central campaign issue in the 2012 county commissioner races, with virtually all the candidates making pronouncements of a “lean and mean” scenario.
But based on the initial presentation of the 2014 fiscal blueprint, the county has appeared to dodge a bullet, with the perfect financial storm that raged over Teller not becoming as devastating as many anticipated. As a result, the county is proposing a $26.9 million budget for next year and a healthy 3.6 percent hike in governmental expenditures. Moreover, the budget represented a nearly $800,000 increase in its nuts and bolts general fund from the spending estimated in 2013.
That’s a far cry from past budget outlooks in Teller, which almost portrayed a Charles Dickens-like poverty scene, based on the analysis of previous elected leaders. Former Teller commissioners often shook their heads and emphasized that Teller was financially struggling, even after reducing expenses to 2005 levels.
For the first time in several years, the county may actually see a slight hike in its spending levels next year. “We are cautiously optimistic,” said Finance Director Laurie Litiwn, in describing the county’s 2014 fiscal portrait. “The process of balancing a budget was a lot less challenging than it has been in recent years. Things weren’t as bad as we thought they would be.” Details of the budget will be presented during a hearing, scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. in the Centennial Building in Cripple Creek. Public comment is encouraged. The county commissioners then must adopt the final budget on Dec. 12.
Last week, the commissioners approved the proposed budget with little comment. Commissioner Norm Steen lauded the county staff for their fiscal conservatism and professionalism. “I am really impressed with the level of expertise,” said Steen, who stated that he has overseen many budget reviews in his career.
A surprisingly smooth process
According to Litwin, the 2014 budget process went much smoother due to the fact that previous doomsday accounts of plunging property valuation never quite materialized. Property values, which heavily impact taxes, did drop, but only by about 3 percent, well short of what some leaders were expecting. In addition, the county’s revenue situation got a boost with more mineral production activity, courtesy of the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining expansion project. “That really made up the difference,”said Litwin. Plus, the county’s fiscal situation has improved due to past conservative spending practices, according to the finance chief. And with tough times, she noted that few department heads and civic leaders from around the county have been asking for money. “All of our departments have had to do more with less and get a little more creative,” said the finance director.
But the county’s lean and mean approach in previous years has had some negative effects. The county has been operating with 80 percent of the workload it had in 2010, according to the budget summary. This has resulted in longer turnaround times for some departments and “less of an ability to personalize services.”
For example, fewer employees may have played a role in the county’s decision to part ways with Woodland Park in offering building permit and inspection services. This contractual arrangement is expected to end at the end of November. With the rise of building activity in Woodland Park, the county just couldn’t provide the level of flexibility desired by the city, according to a previous announcement. The county hasn’t done any fiscal-related layoffs, but once an employee quits or resigns, that position has rarely been refilled. Similiar to past years, the county’s 2014 budget calls for no additional employees.
Also, the county has been forced to put on hold its big capital improvement projects, such as plans for forming a Divide service center. Currently, the county still rents its Woodland Park office buildings from the state land board, an arrangement that many county officials frown on. In addition, the 2014 fiscal portrait, while indicating that better times may be ahead, has demonstrated much less reliance on grant dollars. Teller County only expects to receive $721,543 in grant funds, which is considerably less than what it has gotten in past years. This could produce less big dollar projects.
Litwin, though, said the county does plan to revisit its strategic plan next year. That could determine if the county wants to add new employees or start making plans for relocating many offices in Divide. And as a partial employee incentive, the budget calls for a pool of money for workers who do more work outside of their regular designated duties. “Management holds the position that it is important to recognize the hard work of our employees and has once again funded a compensation pool in this budget to accomplish that,” according to the county’s budget message. The details of this pool still have to get worked out.
Besides the compensation pool, the increase spending for 2014 is attributed to wildfire contingency monies and base adjustments for county prisoner costs and social service programs, according to the budget summary.