In addition to pumpkin carving, Halloween goblins and colorful oak-covered hillsides, October also means budget season for the La Plata County Commissioners, when we look at the hard work your elected officials, department heads and administrative leadership have done to craft a draft spending plan for 2018.
As you’ve heard from us many times in recent years, this is increasingly an exercise in austerity, and this year’s budget process does not look to be much different. As our property tax revenues decline, we face the unpleasant task of responding with cutbacks to where we spend limited tax dollars.
These are not easy discussions, and they have real consequences for our community – including residents and La Plata County staff. Also, it is important to note that most of the services that La Plata County provides are things we must deliver according to state law: human services, public safety, jail, courthouse, district attorney, emergency management, elections, motor vehicle registration, animal control, tax assessment and collection are examples of these mandatory services – and there are many more.
Fundamentally, like all counties in Colorado, property tax is our primary revenue source. When that falls – as it has by about 50 percent since 2010 – we have to make difficult decisions about how to balance the budget. We must deliver required services and still try to invest in the services you have prioritized to shape our community’s successful future.
As you can imagine, the math is not always in our favor, and lately, it has been downright unfriendly. In response, we have had to make painful decisions that we know are unpopular. The county will not be able to fund the branch libraries at Fort Lewis Mesa and Sunnyside elementary schools next year. This is not a decision we wanted to make. But it is far from the only reduction that we La Plata County residents will feel.
To name other decisions that we are making to bridge the gap in revenue and expenses, we are:
Reducing the gravel and dust suppression on our county roads and deferring many road maintenance projects;Offering eligible employees early retirement and keeping vacancies open for 60 days or longer before refilling positions; Considering closing the motor vehicle registration office in Bayfield.We are achieving significant cost-savings through internal innovations and, still, we’re not looking great financially. All of these things have helped, but they have not come without a cost to our community.
Nor do they provide a path to long-term financial sustainability. We have made incremental, painful cuts over the past few years to soften the blow of reduced services, but that strategy will catch up with us. As more people move to the region, the demand for services increases, but there is not a corresponding revenue increase.
Deferred maintenance on roads or buildings does not make problems go away, it just makes them more expensive later. Reducing the services we can provide increases demand on other agencies. Reducing staffing increases the burden on remaining employees and can slow down how quickly staff can respond to your questions or needs. We can do better – and we want your help in doing so.
As we begin the budget adoption process, we will also begin asking all of you to join us in the conversation about what kind of community we want to have and how we will make the necessary investments to deliver that vision. We are all La Plata County and need to work together to understand our challenges and to address them.
As we see every day, residents don’t all see the world the same way, and one person’s solution is another’s nightmare. We hear from folks who are unhappy about vacation rentals in their neighborhoods. At the same time, we hear from vacation rental owners that county regulations will injure their rights as property owners. In that discussion, and so many others, no one is wrong. In fact, people need to hear from each other. It helps each of us understand our neighbors better.
Please join us in this community conversation that first acknowledges that we are all La Plata County, educates one another on what we as a county government must, and could, do for our residents, and energizes you to articulate your vision for our community. I look forward to it and hope you will take time to help shape La Plata County’s future.
Julie Westendorff is chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at 385-6219.