Durango city employees won't lose their jobs this year despite a possible $400,000 budget shortfall, but their boss wants to hear their ideas on where to find the money.
City Manager Ron LeBlanc spoke to more than 200 city workers Friday and assured the staff all jobs are secure. He said one of the primary goals in the current budget was to improve employee retention. Annual turnover among city employees has risen from 15 to 22 percent in the last five years, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in training and millions in salaries.
"We can't be a revolving door for employees, and that's why we're keeping our promise," LeBlanc said.
"When the economy improves, I don't want them walking out the door."
LeBlanc met with city department heads before Friday's meeting and has charged them and all city employees with suggesting ways to save money this year without cutting city services or employees. The 2009 budget, already considered conservative with no anticipated increase in sales tax revenues, is in further jeopardy after a 3.5 decrease in January revenues versus the same month in 2008.
While sales tax revenue bounced back slightly in February - up 0.3 percent for the month - city staff and councilors are anticipating the need to find hundreds of thousands of dollars this year and will have to plan for more cuts in 2010 as well.
"Even if we found a way to balance 2009 with one-time revenues, that check won't be available in 2010; these have to be ongoing and widespread cuts if we're looking at an extended downturn in the economy," LeBlanc said.
"I'd rather get on it early and make small adjustments than wait and make a major cut."
The department heads and employees have two weeks to submit their suggestions to LeBlanc. He said no specific department or city services have been targeted yet, and he will make a list of his own recommendations based on the data he collects. He expects to submit the list to the City Council in May and make the recommendations based on year-to-date sales tax figures at that time.
Even if the shortfall comes to fruition, Durango is still in better fiscal shape than many of its high-profile counterparts throughout the West. Sales-tax revenues are down 15 percent in Telluride and Aspen, 24 percent in Snowmass and more than 30 percent in Ketchum, Idaho, the town LeBlanc left to take the same job in Durango.
He said Durango's economy is more diversified than the ski industry-dominated municipalities. The city's income comes from other tourism, construction and Fort Lewis College, in addition to traditional fees and revenues found in most cities. Still, recent national, state and local news coverage of the economy spurred LeBlanc to call this week's meetings.
"They've been scared. There are teachers losing their jobs and every time you turn on the radio it's bad, bad, bad," he said.
"They have a right to know if their jobs are safe and I also want to give them a voice in keeping them safe."