La Plata County government will leave 19 positions vacant this year, saving about $1.16 million at a time when the county is in dire need of cutting costs because of declines in its operating budget.
But the cuts will come at a price, said County Manager Joanne Spina.
“Every one of those positions will impact services,” Spina said. “The biggest portion of our budget is personnel, so if you are trying to adjust to revenue limitations, personnel is something we have to look at.
“But we’re trying to do it in a strategic and thoughtful way, and not a knee jerk reaction.”
Since 2010, La Plata County’s property tax revenue has declined about 50 percent as a result of the downturn in the oil and gas industry in the county. The county forecasts 2018 revenue will be $14.9 million, down from $29.4 million in 2010.
The county has made cuts and sacrifices where it can. This year, the county is targeting staffing, which accounts for more than 50 percent of its operating budget.
Along with a reduction in services, employees will have to absorb the extra workload.
“People equal services,” said La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham.
Here’s a look at what departments will be affected most:
Human Services DepartmentThe Human Services Department took the largest share of hits this past budget season. Five of the 19 vacancies will be in the department, said Martha Johnson, director of Human Services.
“It’s very concerning,” Johnson said. “We’re worried that residents may continue to see negative impacts on not being able to receive benefits they’re eligible for.”
The Human Services Department offers a range of state- and federally-mandated public assistance programs to children, seniors, low-income residents and people with disabilities.
In recent years, the department eliminated all of the voluntary programs it offered. Now, with more financial struggles, it has been cutting back staff that administer the essential programs required by law.
One position is a resource adviser in the child care assistance unit, which determines eligibility for families that may qualify for financial help for child care. Now, there’s only one person on staff.
Johnson said one person can manage only about 90 cases. At the end of February, nearly 80 kids in the county were registered in the program, which means if there is increased demand, the department may have to create a wait-list.
A position that helps determine eligibility for food and medical assistance will also be left vacant, which is likely to cause a delay in the time staff can evaluate cases. The county’s workload has increased 4 percent since the loss of the position in the department, which is now almost 30 days behind.
A caseworker position at Big Picture High School, which helps kids with high-risk behavior, will also go unfilled. The department can no longer help as many kids as it once could, Johnson said.
Other positions left vacant include a manager in child welfare and a family meeting facilitator, who helps coordinate services for families with children in court.
Road and Bridge DepartmentThe Road and Bridge Department lost two maintenance positions, said supervisor Doyle Villers. The department is down to 31 workers who are responsible for, among other tasks, road maintenance and plowing snow throughout the entire county.
“If it had been a normal year with winter and snowfall, residents would have probably experienced a delay in their roads plowed to what they are used to,” he said.
In the summer, Villers said responses to road damage, hazards and repairs will be delayed.
Engineering DepartmentJim Davis, county engineer, said the Engineering Department will leave three positions vacant: a survey coordinator, a transportation inspector and an engineering project manager.
The positions get into the nitty-gritty of right-of-way processes, help with capital improvement projects and help with residents’ related needs. The department has no engineering project managers.
With less money to work with, Davis said there is less road construction, maintenance and repair.
“We’re watching our roads slowly decline,” he said. “If we continue to operate at this level, it’s likely to cost more in the long run to fix the roads that haven’t been properly maintained.”
Sheriff’s OfficeWith the population increasing in the La Plata County Jail, Sheriff Sean Smith would have liked to add staff. Instead, he was forced to eliminate two detention specialists, who deal with the administrative tasks for jail bookings.
The Sheriff’s Office also was forced to go from two training specialists to one, who is responsible for coordinating the training of every officer in the department. The position sets up classes, helps deputies attend them and tracks and reports the training, which includes 24 hours annually and 12 hours of skills, to the state.
“It’s a lot for one person to be in charge of the entire department,” Smith said.
The other vacant position is a cook at the jail.
Building DepartmentConstruction activity in the county is on the rise, but with staff cuts, developers can expect delays in inspections.
Butch Knowlton, director of the department, said there can be up to 30 inspections a day, but the department has only three full-time and one part-time inspectors. One full-time inspector position will go unfilled.
The Building Department is responsible for inspecting all phases of new construction in the county, driven by county regulations.
“My greatest concern is keeping up with the demands industry places on this department,” Knowlton said. “So far, we’ve been able to meet the demands. But if the construction industry takes off, then people would have to start waiting for those inspections.”
He said because of the fees associated with new construction, the Building Department is essentially a self-sustaining department. In 2017, 722 permits were issued for construction, compared with 675 in 2016.
Knowlton, who has worked for the county for 42 years, has some perspective on the ups and downs of county government.
“It’s a simple problem across many levels of government,” Knowlton said. “Money is not coming into the government, and we have to be cautious with our spending.”