Auditors raise concerns over escalating expenses
The Teller County is in good financial shape, but must deal with increasing expenses for facilities, public safety and central support services against declining tax revenue.
In fact, for the first time in several years, the county’s operating margin, which tabulates revenue versus expenses, dipped into the minus column. This is the first time this has occurred since 2012
But as a whole, the county is faring quite well in dealing with declining debt and planning for emergencies.
These are some of the main conclusions drawn from an annual audit provided by RubinBrown LLP, and accepted by the county commissioners. They cited the report as evidence that the county is on good financial footing, despite some financial challenges.
“The county’s liquidity and low debt level continues to support a strong fiscal financial position,” stated the company in its report.
For the most part, the auditors indicated that financially the county is good shape. The county received solid marks in keeping a hefty amount of financial reserves, in case of an emergency, and in having more than enough cash to cover its liabilities. The county was “above the benchmark” in these categories, according to the annual review.
However, not all the financial news is good, with a few warning signs.
One definite concern cited by the auditors in their report focuses on increasing expenses on a per capita basis, while revenues are declining. According to the latest audit report, the county has experienced lower property and sales tax numbers. In essence, the expenses for the last year exceeded the revenues collected. “The fiscal health benchmark is for an upward trend in tax revenue per capita and a steady or falling trend for expernditures per capita,” stated the auditors in their report.
The gap between per capita tax revenue and expenditures rose last year, compared to 2013 and 2014. This is based on a population level of 23,650 people. That’s not a good trend, according to the auditors.
The auditors suggested that the county take action to combat an increase in payroll expenses in public safety overtime. They specifically recommended having more efficient employee shifts to reduce payroll expenses. They previously recommended that the sheriff’s office, “with help from the Finance Department, ensure new employees responsible for financial activities are trained and procedures are followed.”
According to the report, aggressive actions have been taken by Sheriff Mike Ensminger to deal with problem.
The commissioners lauded the finance office for maintaining a conservative fiscal approach. “These are public monies,” said Commission Chairman Norm Steen. “The finances are being well maintained.”
The county specifically received kudos for being viewed as a “low-risk auditee” because of its compliance in handling reports for federal grants.
Finance Director Laurie Litwin stated that much of the credit is due to the various department heads.
Liquor Wars Heat Up in Colorado
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has signed a bill that would permit big box chain outlets to eventually sell full-fledged beer, wine and liquor eventually, but the battle is far from over.
Late last week, the governor endorsed a bill that would allow major grocery outlets to sell full-strength beer, wine and liquor, but not right away. The bill allows chain grocery stores, such as Wal-Mart and Safeway, to obtain multiple liquor licenses, but only if they purchase the liquor licenses from nearby outlets. This “nearby” radius would expand for towns like Woodland Park.
Still, the specifics of the legislation are raising more questions and answers. Hickenlooper has described the bill as a compromise. As a former brewpub owner, he admits he has struggled with the legislation. Hickenlooper said he only agreed to sign the proposed bill, SB197, after hearing the opinions of many operators of independent liquor stores.
Beginning in January, the legislation would allow grocery stores to obtain up to five liquor licenses to sell full-strength beer and wine, if the outlet buys out at least two nearby liquor stores and the licenses of all liquor stores within 1,500 feet. Hard liquor could not be sold at grocery stores until 2019.
This compromise, though, may not be enough to resolve the issue.
Several major grocery stores, including King Soopers and Safeway, may try to put an issue on the Nov. .ballot to immediately allow stores to hold more than one license. For years, major grocery store outlets have lobbied for the licensing change, but have experienced much opposition from small business owners in Colorado. Meanwhile, many of these operators may mount their own counter campaign.
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources is accepting applications for a fifth round of awards under the Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program. This phase will provide $1 million to reduce the risk of wildfire in areas where human development and forested lands overlap, often called the wildland-urban interface.
The program, created under Senate Bill 13-269, is focused on projects that reduce the risk for damage to property, infrastructure, and water supplies, and those that limit the likelihood of wildfires spreading into populated areas. Funds will be directed to non-federal lands within Colorado. Senate Bill 16-003 authorized an additional $1 million for the program.
Across four grant cycles, the program has awarded $10.8 million to 116 projects in 27 counties to treat thousands of acres in high-risk areas.
Eligible applicants include community groups, local governments, utilities, state agencies and non-profit groups. Applicants must contribute 100 percent matching funds, which can include in-kind resources, for a 50-50 grant-to-match ratio. Applicants must identify plans to make use of the woody material resulting from the projects. Those plans can include using the materials for biomass energy and/or traditional forest products.
Examples of projects considered for funding include:
• Creation of defensible space around homes and structures, based on Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) guidelines.
• Construction of fuel breaks, based on CSFS guidelines.
• Fuels reduction beyond defensible space, designed to protect water supplies and/or reduce fire intensity.
• Removal of useable materials with specific utilization plans; removal of slash including chipping, mulching, grinding, pile burning, broadcast burning or mechanical removal.
Up to 25 percent of total grant funds are available to pay for the purchase of equipment that will increase current and future capacity for hazardous fuels reduction. Applicants interested in using funds for these purposes can use a specific application form for capacity building.
All applicants must coordinate proposed projects with appropriate county officials to ensure consistency with county-level wildfire risk reduction planning. The deadline to receive proposals is August 8 and awards are anticipated in mid-September.
A more detailed overview of the grant program and its requirements and limitations, as well as the grant applications, instructions and other materials, is available through this link at the Department of Natural Resources website.
Earlier grant recipients have been working with Colorado Forest Restoration Institute to measure conditions before they begin treatment; this is part of a significant monitoring effort that will help forestry officials understand the impact of grant funds when the projects have been completed.
Awardees have also been working with the Colorado Wood Utilization and Marketing Program (CoWood) to maximize opportunities for woody material that is removed from sites. Additionally, awardees have been working with Colorado Youth Corps to identify opportunities for youth to get involved as a labor force on the ground.