Eagle County prepares to spend less | VailDaily.com

Eagle County prepares to spend less

EAGLE, Colorado – Lean times have hit Eagle County’s government.

Work has already started on the county’s 2010 budget, and department directors will need to present the budget-builders with funding requests either level with, or less than the money they’re spending this year.

Eagle County Finance Director John Lewis sat down with the county commissioners Tuesday, and the news wasn’t great.

Lewis said current forecasts indicate the county won’t take in any more money in 2010 than it does this year. Property taxes will have to rise by 12 to 13 percent to offset an expected drop in sales tax collections, Lewis said.

Money from fees – usually building and similar permit fees – is going to drop, Lewis said, and money the county usually receives from the state government will really drop in 2010.

With that in mind, Lewis said he and County Manager Keith Montag are asking department heads to put a very sharp pencil to their 2010 budget requests. Requests for training must be tightly defined, according to a budget guideline document sent to department heads. Individual line items must be closely scrutinized, with an eye toward the next three years and the previous five used as justification for any spending. Some items are going to be cut, and county employees can expect some changes to their benefits package.

“We’re saying ‘keep your budgets flat and justify your spending,'” Montag said. “You can’t just ask for what you budgeted for 2009.”

With that in mind, some county spending will increase in 2010, particularly the expanded county jail, which is going to require more people to run. Other programs asking for increases will have to prove both their effectiveness and popularity with the public, Montag said.

But the “flat” budget may not be enough. Lewis said department heads are being asked to prepare budgets that cut 10 percent from this year’s spending.

While they applauded the idea of a close eye on next year’s spending, commissioners Peter Runyon and Jon Stavney said it might be better if all departments were told to cut perhaps 3 percent off their formal budgets, while still preparing emergency budgets with deeper cuts.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the bottom of this yet,” Runyon said. “The crystal ball is still very cloudy.”

Commissioner Sarah Fisher disagreed, saying it’s too soon to tell just how the county’s finances will play out in the second half of the year. Fisher said county officials only recently have gotten revenue numbers for the first quarter of this year.

“We don’t have a much better picture now than we did in March,” she said.

Montag said a requirement to cut might not work, especially in some smaller county departments. But, he said, spending 3 to 5 percent less next year is a good goal. More important, Montag added, is looking ahead, especially since the county will probably need to spend some of its reserve funds over the next few years.

“We need to tap those reserves at the lowest rate possible,” Runyon said. “If we’re conservative, we can stretch those reserves out for several years.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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