The near absence of public input on La Plata County’s 2018 proposed budget, which is riddled with cuts to services amid a continuing decrease in oil and gas revenues, was probably the loudest voice on Tuesday.
“It is unfortunate there’s not more interest,” said La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake. “It’s harder to make decisions when the public’s not involved and you’re out of money.”
On Tuesday, a public comment session was held at the La Plata County Administration building to give residents a chance to weigh in on the upcoming budget. Out of the 13 people who attended, five people offered their opinions.
Two residents commended La Plata County staff for the continued funding of the Living with Wildlife Advisory Board, a mostly volunteer board that offers educational components to wildlife. A total of $2,500 is budgeted for this board.
Another resident who works as a flagger at construction sites in the county was concerned that there wasn’t money allocated for flaggers in the upcoming year. However, county staff said that particular detail has not yet been worked out.
Rick Smith, former mayor of Bayfield, suggested the county consider outsourcing certain positions as a way to save money. He then offered his own company’s services for that job.
Perhaps the most substantial comments came from Bob Lieb, a former county commissioner, who mostly reiterated second-hand opinions he said he’s heard from county residents.
Lieb’s comments were mostly centered on a supposed perception among county residents that the county is spending more on facilities and real estate, rather than much-needed road and bridge projects.
“If you stand back and look at the big picture, it’s a bit strange to think we are cutting staff but spending more … on facilities,” Lieb said.
About $6.5 million is expected to be spent in 2018 on facilities-related projects, out of a total operating expenditure budget of about $34 million, said County Manager Joanne Spina. However, that’s money that was saved years ago with the specific intention of addressing outstanding facility needs identified in a 2012 study, she said.
Those projects include remodeling the courthouse, which also freed up much-needed space for the district attorney’s office, as well as relocating certain departments to maximize efficiency.
In the end, the shuffling of county departments will save money, Spina said.
Otherwise, the short-lived meeting on the budget generated no other critiques from the public.
“This is a pretty tame crowd for … budget comments,” La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff.
The fact so few showed up to Tuesday’s meeting was a surprise, mostly because proposed cuts in services in the budget have generated a fair amount of kick-back.
In 2018, property tax revenue is expected to continue to decline to $14.9 million, a 50 percent fall since the oil and gas peak years in 2010.
As a result, the county has taken several measures to cut its operating costs. Most notably, the county will close the clerk’s office in Bayfield, saving about $50,000 a year. And, the Road & Bridge Fund will be cut by nearly $5 million, which means fewer road improvement projects.
“There’s tension between balancing our responsibility to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ resources with a level of service we can afford to provide,” Spina said. “And that’s in conflict given our limited resources.”
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt noted that given the decline of oil and gas revenues, and the likelihood that they won’t return, the county needs to rely more on mill levy dollars. The county has some of the lowest mill levy rates in the state at 8.5 mills. The state average is about 20 mills, which is what a study determined La Plata County needs to be sustainable.
Yet, voters turned down tax increases in the last two elections.
Larry Zauberis, a La Plata County resident, harkened back to the public’s perception.
“The public perception is the county isn’t spending our money correctly,” he said. “Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter; it’s a perception thing in the public … that’s why your road and bridge thing failed.”