HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS - Big-ticket items in this year's crafting of the 2013 county budget include more funds set aside for water defense, support for economic development and further work on stopping the landfill landslide.
The county enters the budget season with a healthy reserve of $21 million, money county officials have squirreled away in anticipation of underwhelming property-tax income in 2014 after a reassessment of values in 2013. County department heads were challenged to reduce their budgets by 10 percent two consecutive years in order to help stockpile the reserves. The 20 percent reduction in operation expenses helped to cushion the blow of a 17 percent shortfall in property tax income, according to Grand County Accounting Director Scott Berger.
Capital expenditures have been frozen in the county's budget going on three years, but large expenses loom, such as culvert work on County Road 3 (Ute Pass) - a possible $700,000 expenditure, equipment for the road and bridge department, and new technical systems requested in the sheriff's, assessor's and treasurer's offices.
Another $800,000 budget place-marker depends on federal and state grants for pavement and possible taxi-lane improvements at the Kremmling Airport.
This year, county department heads were asked to keep budgets flat.
"Almost every one of our departments is making do," said Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran.
Although freezes in hiring, raises, capital expenditures and increases in operation budgets have been "difficult at times," the manager said, "Employees have been very good about it." Commissioners have yielded circumstances for "critical" departments such as sheriff, EMS, public health and social services, yet levels of service even in some of those departments may be strained, such as in the harder-hit social services office during a recession-burdened economy.
Service-related personnel costs account for about 50 percent of the county's annual operating budget. The 2013 draft budget does not reflect employee raises for the fifth consecutive year.
Although budgets remain flat, there are no employee cuts laid out in the preliminary $30 million county operating budget.
Meanwhile, work to stop the landslide at the Grand County landfill continues, and it still unclear how much the county will end up spending on this project to ensure the land is contained.
Of the $1.2 million budgeted for the landfill in 2012, about half has been spent, and county officials have tentatively budgeted another $1 million for 2013. The county has been studying and monitoring the landslide while pumping water out of some of six wells.
"The rate of movement has slowed substantially," said Underbrink Curran, although it has yet to be determined whether the slowdown is from pumping efforts or due to a very dry season, she said.
The preliminary county budget also has $1.3 million listed for continued water-protection efforts. The greatest water line item of $500,000 in matching funds is for a recreational in-channel diversion at Pumphouse on the Colorado River. The investment would be considered economic development, with whitewater improvements to the river beneficial to the rafting industry and to kayakers. And because of the rights associated with it, the recreational in-channel diversion would help protect the water by creating a call on the river, according to Underbrink Curran. Another $400,000 water-related line item has been budgeted in the draft for legal fees associated with ongoing water issues, such as the highly publicized Moffat and Windy Gap firming projects.
The county is dedicating funds to economic development in 2013 with a new department headed by new-hire DiAnn Butler. The county made an exception to its ongoing hiring freeze when officials created the new department last spring to try and facilitate business growth in the county. For the department, $140,000 is being budgeted for the position's salary, health benefits, professional services and other expenses.
Meanwhile, commissioners are also putting their stake in economic development in the area of the one-year-old Granby Enterprise Initiative, a grass-roots approach to supporting businesses and creating new ones. In the preliminary budget, $40,000 has been set aside for that program, with commissioners' preference the Initiative branch out countywide. According to the Initiative's facilitator Patrick Brower, the Granby-based program is currently moving in that direction.
County officials have budgeted conservatively for an anticipated 15 percent increase in costs for employee health benefits.
And as far as contributions to nonprofits, commissioners preliminarily determined to set aside $117,000, a 17 percent increase from last year's budget, for local nonprofits. The total would be split among about 13 organizations, with the largest amount for the Granby Enterprise Initiative.
The Grand County draft budget, which reflects $29.6 million in revenues and $28.4 million in operating expenses, is set for a hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 7, with possible adoption on Nov. 13.