Where can you cut county spending? | VailDaily.com

Where can you cut county spending?

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Rising property taxes and county spending have been the hot topics thus far in the Eagle County commissioners race, but the candidates have differed on how much revenue the county needs, and where it needs to be spending that money.

Republican candidates Dick Gustafson and Debbie Buckley have run on platforms of cutting the county budget and lowering property taxes. Both signed a tax pledge put forth by Tax Payers for Common Sense, a local advocacy group, that promised to lower taxes and reinstate revenue-limiting laws.

Gustafson has said he believes in only funding services that are state-mandated ” public safety, courts, clerk and recorder, road and bridge, to name a few. All of those services are operated mainly on property tax money.

After those services are funded, then what’s left should be allocated on whatever programs taxpayers choose, Gustafson said.

“Once the county has done it’s job, the rest should be up to the taxpayers as to what they want to spend it on,” he said.

Buckley said she is committed to a similar “needs first, wants second” philosophy on spending.

If the candidates slimmed down the county budget and operated on less revenue, what and where would they cut spending?

Democrat and incumbent commissioner Peter Runyon, who is running against Gustafson, argues that the $7.3 million of increased tax revenue the county received last year are needed for a growing county and “dramatically rising costs.”

However, Gustafson said there is plenty of room for “belt tightening.” The county shouldn’t be building affordable housing ” instead they should be making incentives for private developers to do so, he said.

The $4.5 million the county put into a workforce housing neighborhood at Gypsum’s Stratton Flats was unnecessary, Gustafson said.

“That money was totally unsecured. If that operation fails, the county is never getting that back,” he said.

He would also cut spending on hiring consultants, he said. The current board has hired firms to advise on renaming the airport, bike paths, buying cars and xeriscaping the county grounds, he said.

“Surely they can make a decision without paying someone $90,000,” he said, referring to a $90,000 airport marketing study earlier this year.

Buckley also pointed to a marketing firm hired to produce a new logo for the county.

Both candidates have said they would also cut spending for early-childhood development programs. The program has about an $800,000 budget that comes from both county funds and matching community grants.

“It’s not that I’m against early-childhood programs, I just don’t think the county should be the one doing it,” Gustafson said.

Democrat candidate Jon Stavney, who is running against Buckley, said he won’t commit to cutting spending or taxes until he has an in-depth look and understanding of the budget.

However, he said he isn’t a believer in “knee-jerk government expansion.”

“A larger budget every year shouldn’t be an assumption,” he said.

But county officials say the budget is already very conservative.

“We’re constantly razoring the budget,” Runyon said. “If we’re as tight as we were last year, we don’t have a huge surplus to play with.”

A slow down in permit fees, decrease in state and federal funding and flattening of sales tax revenue means that 2009 will be “tight,” said Finance Director John Lewis.

Runyon also argues that all the blame for higher taxes can’t be put on the county ” the county only gets about 15 percent of all property taxes, he said at a recent candidates forum.

Still, Buckley said most voters she has spoken with agree with her that a 43 percent increase in property taxes is too much.

Runyon has discussed giving tax rebates that would put money back in the hands of local residents. However, the county would have rebate a considerable amount for that to make a difference.

If the county cut it’s budget by $1 million, a $400,000 property would only receive $10.10 back, according to the Eagle County Assessor’s Office.

And while Gustafson has advocated lowering the mill levies when property values increase, during his 8 years as commissioner, the mill levy was raised several times, and the average revenue increase for the county was 6.5 percent to 8.5 percent each year.

One tax hike was to build the county building, an increase that voters approved. The others were to cover growth costs and for specific projects, Gustafson said.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.

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