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County looks for $4 million in cuts to balance 2007 budget


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County officials have done away with a human resources director, and cut other jobs.

They've trimmed departmental budgets. They've watched as the vehicle fleet has aged, roads have roughened, and day-to-day operations have required artful reallocation of funds.

"We're out of tire-replacement money," Sheriff Terry Maketa told commissioners at a recent meeting.

Against that backdrop, county leaders now must cut another $4 million in this year's budget.

Think furloughed workers and closed office buildings.

The problem essentially rests with sales-tax money, or lack of it.

Officials forecast this year's sales-tax collections would be 2.75 percent higher than numbers in the 2006 budget.

That forecast turned out to be wrong, and the county is now on track to end the year with $3.4 million less sales-tax revenue than expected. The clerk and recorder's office, which takes in more money from fees than it spends each year, is also predicting it will contribute $700,000 less than expected.

It would be wrong to call the county's latest budget crisis a surprise. Starting in July 2006, tax collections plunged, perhaps the result of a sagging economy. Every month in 2007 so far has brought collections below budget.

Faced with these numbers, which become clear after a one- or two-month delay, county officials could have started trimming the budget earlier in the year.

Jeff Greene, who took over as county administrator in January, says the delay and the possibility that any month could bring a turnaround make it difficult to take that step.

"You never know," he says. "You don't want to be an alarmist until you have conclusive results."

The results at this point, if not conclusive, are pretty bleak. Since the county collects so little in property tax with the state's lowest rate sales-tax revenue makes up nearly 70 percent of the county's general fund, used to cover salaries and most of the county's operational expenses.

The general fund budget for 2007 was nearly $114 million, so the shortfall comes out to less than 4 percent of the total. But assuming daily operating costs of about $350,000, the shortage amounts to suspending almost all county activities for 12 days by year's end.

With reserves already dangerously low, commissioners will look this week at all possibilities, including closing offices some days and cutting services.

The culprit might be more than a slow economy. County officials believe they might also be getting shortchanged by the state, which by law collects the county's 1 percent sales tax.

The possibility came to light after voters in 2004 approved the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, hitting much of the county with another 1 percent sales tax collected by the state.

By comparing what the state collected for the county and RTA, officials think they have found up to $4.8 million in missed payments for the county, and even more for RTA, in 2005 and 2006.

The state is reviewing the county's sales-tax collections for the past two years, and it is unclear to what extent bungled payments could factor into this year's budget problem.


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