by Rick Langenberg:
Teller’s two main municipalities–Cripple Creek and Woodland Park– have signed off on spending plans for next year, with vastly different fiscal challenges facing their governments.
But in both cases, city leaders have opposed any efforts to alter their current taxes with the same mill levy remaining in place. That’s good news for homeowners in Cripple Creek, who have reaped the benefits of one of the lowest city tax rates in the state. For Woodland Park, city leaders have resisted any temptation to issue rebates or lower taxes, despite a fairly bullish economy with a big hike in sales tax dollars. However, based on the final budget discussion for 2014, this idea may be revisited in the future.
In a prompt fashion, the Cripple Creek City Council, with a few final adjustments, approved a final $10.6 million package for next year, representing a huge reduction from 2014. By comparison, the city recorded a nearly $18.5 million budget for this year, largely because of a substantial influx of capital improvement dollars, capped by the Bennett Avenue facelift. Nothing of that magnitude is in the works for 2015, with a city opting for a more ‘nuts and bolts’ budget.
Still, even with proposing one of its leanest budgets in years, the city will record a slight deficit. The city’s proposed spending will outpace available revenues by nearly $175,000, costs that will be recovered by reserve funds.
The city has faced some major financial challenges with the town recording a 20-year low in the total amount of betting devices. The fees assessed on these devices represent the main funding tool for the government. In their final budget meeting, the city council agreed to a few alterations to lower its projected deficit. On the upside, the city was able to grapple with its current financial challenges without laying off any employees or reducing services or programs, or cutting back on its joint marketing efforts with the casinos. But a number of key positions have not been refilled.
The city council expressed satisfaction with the final product. In addition, the council expressed support for a big expansion mulled by business owner Orin Lagree for a new grocery store and retail expansion, near their current location off Teller One. This site, across from the Cripple Creek Venture Foods, was once eyed by the city as a possible location for a new recreation center. “It is getting kind of cramped there,” said Councilman Milford Ashworth, when discussing the current grocery store area and in supporting Lagree’s future expansion. Contrary to previous concerns, the council believes the infrastructure challenges for making this project a reality, in the form of extended city utility services, won’t be as difficult as once anticipated.
The council is prepared to set the groundwork for the project in 2015, based on last week’s discussion. However, no details were discussed.
In Woodland Park, the main fiscal challenges have involved crafting a more expensive budget than in the past, but making room for key capital projects. Voters in November gave the okay to financial plans for a new aquatic center, which will require the spending and issuing of bond payments for more than $15 million over a long-term period. In addition, the city plans to pursue a new maintenance facility and do a major facelift at Memorial Park. Some of these latter projects will be partially funded through grant dollars
Due to the timetable for the bond funds, the city last week set the legal wheels in motion for doing some of the preliminary work prior to the issuing of these monies, such as surveying the property for the proposed aquatic center. The council wants to build the new aquatic facility inside the Woodland Station area. During their final budget session, the council entertained a slight discussion on a subject that often crops up during better economic times: lowering the mill levy or offering rebates. City Manager David Buttery raised a red flag over this possibility due to the need to use the projected revenue stream to fund key projects.
However, some council members want to review this option. “Maybe our taxpayers can be relieved,” said Councilman Gary Brovetto, in discussing the influx of extra money flowing into the city’s coffers. Another idea thrown out dealt with the offering of rebates to residents.The council toyed with these ideas in the past, but never reached any consensus on lowering its mill levy, set at 16.2 mills. One big concern is that if the tax rate is lowered, officials wouldn’t be able to raise it back, unless voters give the okay. Since the implementation of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the city has kept the same mill levy for more than 20 years.
On another side subject, Councilman Bob Carlsen wants the city to change the current charter, so no conflicts arise over any repeat of Pro Challenge race expense controversies. The city ended up spending more than $150,000 for the Pro Challenge preparations, even though it only agreed to open its pocketbook for a little more than $60,000. Much of this money was reimbursed through sales of merchandise, food and other items and support from sponsors, but the city was still staring at a net loss of nearly $100,000. According to Carlsen, the city needs to changes its charter to allow the city manager and other officials the flexibility to spend extra dollars that exceed financial projections, or bring these proposals before the city council. “We are being asked after the fact,” complained Carlsen, when describing the Pro Challenge expense situation.
The race won’t be coming back to the area next summer, but officials are hoping for a return debut in 2016 (see related story). On the upside, both Buttery and Economic Development Director Brian Fleer gave a fairly positive prognosis of Woodland Park’s financial state. “We have had a good year,” said Fleer, who estimated that the town has recorded a 5 to 8 percent hike in sales tax revenue throughout the year. According to Fleer, sales have been strong at the town’s major big box and chain outlets. He said one of the big goals next year hinges on helping small, ‘mom and pop’ businesses.
The town now receives a hefty portion of its revenue from sales taxes. That wasn’t the case in 1980s and early 1990s, when the city was largely funded through property taxes.