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County Considers Big Cuts

County Parks, Pikes Peak Center, Penrose Equestrian Center top the potential chop list


Sell off county parks. Privatize the Penrose Equestrian Center.

Drop the county's $95,000 a year subsidy for the Pikes Peak Center.

Reduce the number of county commissioners from five to three.

Eliminate or scale back the county fair.

These are just some of the more dramatic things that some top El Paso County officials say must be done in order to keep providing basic services in a time of tightening budgets, according to a new study by an auditing firm hired by the county.

The independent accounting firm, Grant Thornton, interviewed 38 top managers and elected officials before announcing the results of its informal, $15,000 study to county commissioners this week.

The report, which took roughly a month to complete after being commissioned in early July, serves mainly as a summary of the numerous comments made by top county managers. It lists a wide range of potential sources for both savings and revenue.

But the study gives top billing to the idea that the county should either increase user fees on recreational venues, or sell off, privatize and drop subsidies for departments that are not mandated by the state constitution.

"One recurring theme of the comments was that the Board of County Commissioners should focus first on either cutting or eliminating non-mandated programs and services if cost-cutting measures are deemed to be required," the report's author Dennis Yockey wrote in the Aug. 10 document.

"With respect to county parks, it was suggested that the parks department is not critical, that no additional park land needs to be acquired, that land purchased out east is not cost effective since property has to be maintained (existing park land should be put back into the private sector)," he noted.

While only one of many cost-cutting measures suggested in the report, the parks-for-sale idea will likely be highly controversial because there's a history of considerable community support.

County government watchdog Jim Alice Scott, with Citizens for Responsible County Government, said she could not comment fully because her group had not yet had a chance to study the report. But she noted that CRCG has traditionally resisted calls for wholesale privatization of county assets such as parks.

"I'd just say, let's be cautious about this," said Scott. "I'd be wary of saying let's just shut down specific recreational assets."

Echoing comments made by park and recreation supporters, Scott agreed it was unfair to ask people who provide basic services to take pay cuts so that non-essential services can be maintained.

But she said that in a time when all departments are underfunded, the county might consider creative steps to increase revenue before taking drastic measures.

Indeed, not everyone on the board of county commissioners is going to jump at the chance to axe popular services such as parks. "Parks was one of the biggest targets (in the study) because, let's face it, we're not in the business of entertainment," said County Commissioner Ed Jones. "But I also know what attracts business here, and one thing is that we have some of most beautiful parks in the country."

And that, Jones said, means more jobs for taxpayers and more revenue via real estate and sales taxes. Likewise, county parks boss Barbara Nugent said parks offer very real, though hard-to-quantify, benefits.

"My profession has always been a nice easy target because we've never been able to accurately quantify the benefits that parks bring," she said. "But there have been studies that suggest when communities have strong parks and recreation, they are healthier, have less crime, stronger family bonding, and less pollution."

Among other facilities, the 2.56-million county parks department maintains the Westside's Bear Creek Park and Nature Center, the historic Homestead Ranch and Rock Island Trail, as well as Palmer Lake and Fountain Creek parks, among others.

But some county elected officials say the county can no longer afford to continue funding nonessential services at a time of across-the-board budget freezes.

"I love all these all these other services," said El Paso County Sheriff John Wesley Anderson. "They really enhance the quality of life. But when there are across-the-board budgets freezes, as they have for two years, how can we afford to give tax money to entertainment venues?"

This year, Anderson said 27 civilian and sworn positions went unfilled because he knew he wouldn't have the funds needed to pay their salaries. "When we're not paying for the mandated serves -- the have-tos -- how can we keep investing in the nice-tos?" Anderson asked.

For his part, Anderson says he doesn't want to put a for-sale sign on county parks. But he does want the county to sell unused landholdings to raise revenues to pay down debt or cover county expenses.

The county faces tough times in part by its own doing. County Commissioners reduced its mill levy last year after county officials predicted that growth would lead to increased revenue. At the time, commission believed increased income might have violated revenue-growth restrictions in the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, authored by anti-tax crusader Doug Bruce.

At the same time, the county also eliminated a tax on equipment owned by businesses.

The county's Chief Financial Officer, Karen Montgomery, said it may be possible to once again raise the mill levy without a vote of the people because commissioners approved the tax reduction as a "temporary tax credit," not a change in tax policy.

"Whether this board would ever consider that is questionable," Montgomery noted, citing the board's fiscally conservative make up. The belt-tightening mood is further encouraged by yet another proposal on this year's ballot: TaxCut 2000. Authored by antitax crusader Douglas Bruce, TaxCut 2000 could drain county coffers by as much as $4 million a year by 2002, according to county officials.

The County Commissioners are expected to discuss the recommendations -- which also include calls to reduce the number of commissioners from five to three, a savings of roughly $250,000 a year -- at a work session on Thurs., Aug. 17 at 2 p.m. at the County Administration building at 27 E. Vermijo St.

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