Madeleine Osberger
Snowmass Village correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

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October 9, 2009
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Snowmass cuts budget, lays off six employees

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado - Budget cutting took on a human face Thursday in Snowmass Village when six full-time employees lost their jobs with the town. Another two-and-a-half positions were eliminated by attrition or job transfers of administrative personnel.

The layoffs will save the town approximately $650,000 in salaries and benefits, part of $1 million in cuts anticipated to the town budget for 2010. Fueled by projected growth from Base Village and the opening of the Snowmass Recreation Center, town personnel grew by 15.5 positions since 1994, a number considered unsustainable given the drop in building permit fees, the dive in sales tax collections and bottoming of the real estate industry.

"We cut everything we could this year that didn't affect people," Town Manager Russ Forrest said on Thursday, after an all-department staff meeting where the hard realities of the near future were discussed. He referred to the tight-knit town staff as "family." Severance packages and job referrals were part of the assistance offered, Forrest said, noting that both the Viceroy Hotel and the Aspen Skiing Co. were in the process of doing winter hiring.

A stall in building activity - down $1.3 million in building plan check fees this year - hit the Planning Department hard; not surprisingly, that's the department that took the biggest hit.

"We now need to adjust our staffing levels to pre-Base Village days," Forrest said. Corresponding with the decrease were cuts in the planner, planning technician and building official positions. The staff reductions also include the economic resource director, a rec center maintenance position, a court clerk/administrative assistant in the police department as well as three unfilled positions.

The layoffs are effective at the end of the day Friday, Forrest said, adding that a few positions will be finished on Monday. The employees who remain have already had their salaries frozen for the year and won't feel any pay boost until at least June 2010, Forrest said. Rather than raises, money will be set aside to reward bonuses where applicable.

Council has also agreed to not raise rents in the town's 247 employee units.

The Snowmass Village Town Council met in an all-day session on Wednesday to give a preliminary nod to most of the budget's key points. The town is forecasting sales tax collections being between flat to 10 percent down for the coming year. If that's true, then it would be an improvement over 2009, as revenues are projected to be down 20 percent from the original budget. Compounding that misery, real estate transfer tax collections are few and far between, off by 85 percent, according to town finance director Maryann Rakowski.

The RETT tax is a primary funding source for the Snowmass Recreation Center's operations as well as town landscaping. As a result, part-time employment will be curtailed at the rec center this winter in addition to the one full-time employee's layoff.

Rakowski's department will monitor business activity and report back in January to assess the first half of the season and holiday sales tax collections. The town may exercise other budget cuts at that time rather than waiting until later during high season.

In 2010, the town will dip into reserves and fund balances, an action it heretofore not been willing to do while en route to balancing its budget. Other budget tightening measures include: Cutting shuttle Route 7; asking each employee to take two, unpaid furlough days; a halt, or delay, on capital expenditures and flat or minimal expenditure increases in most departments.

A 14 percent increase in health benefit costs next year will also weigh on the town's budget.

The marketing budget has yet to be finalized but discussions as recently as last week showed a preference for retaining summer activities and events - eight Thursday night Fanny Hill concerts, for example - while shaving some dollars from winter events.

But is the belt being tightened enough? Mayor Bill Boineau, who has just returned from a western road trip, said he saw first-hand how bad the economy is, citing families living full-time in their cars in an RV park in Portland, Ore. (in one case it was a Mercedes SUV).

The state of the "general public" has prompted Boineau to ask for progress checks early in the year in case the town has to "pull the trigger on 5, 10 percent [reductions]" early on if necessary.

Sustained operating costs of the rec center are a deep concern to elected officials, with Arnie Mordkin requesting hard numbers on subsidies for non-residents. If hours are cut it may be the early birds that take the hit, based on attendance numbers provided by facility director Andy Worline. As the staff looks for new sources of revenue, guests may take a hit through increased fees - tennis may no longer be free - and more costly concessions.

"This community can't afford to keep coughing up half-a-million a year," in rec center subsidies, Mordkin said.

Reed Lewis wouldn't hear of canceling the end-of-summer community party, offering to raise the $6,500 himself. The winter holiday staff party, however, has been cut.

The town will use reserves to make up for its shortfalls but is committed to retaining a $5 million fund balance. When the question arose about tapping into unappropriated funds, Arnie Mordkin reminded the group that in terms of saving for a rainy day, "it's pouring now."

Most of the recommendations offered by the town's Financial Advisory Board made their way into the budget, save for the request that the town lower the mill levy from five mills. Each additional mill costs about $118 more per year per million dollars of property value.

"Be prudent" with the taxpayer's money, FAB Chair Rick Griffin advised, noting the growth of older locals on fixed incomes.

But as council listened to Public Works Director Hunt Walker and Transportation Director David Peckler speak of the dangers of deferred road and vehicle maintenance, as well as a near future need for another roundabout, elected officials opted to stick with the full mill rate.

"I don't want to push a burden on future generations. I think we have to take care of our own now," said Markey Butler, who advocated for the five mills rather than a future bond issue..

Peckler's department is the recent recipient of a $213,000 federal stimulus grant, an upbeat note in an otherwise somber two days of meetings.


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The VailDaily Updated Oct 9, 2009 12:20PM Published Oct 9, 2009 12:11PM Copyright 2009 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.