The Cortez City Council last week unanimously adopted a final 2019 budget with total expenses of $32.87 million across all funds and a 1.3 mill levy on each dollar of taxable property within the city.
At the City Council meeting on Dec. 11, Finance Director Kathi Moss said that out of the $32.87 million budget, 58 percent, or $19 million, is allocated for personnel and 20 percent, or $6.6 million, is allocated for capital projects. The 2019 general fund starts with a beginning balance of $4.3 million — a $763,000 decrease from 2018 — and includes a reserve of $2.5 million, or 20 percent of general fund operating expenses. General fund expenses total $13.69 million.
Overall spending on capital projects will decrease in 2019 in most departments, including a decrease in downtown improvements and a freeze on all capital spending to install fiber-optic cable for the Cortez Community Network, the city’s broadband program.
City Manager John Dougherty, who started work on July 7, said the city spent a lot of money in 2018 on the Main Street medians, purchasing land for the southside community park and the solar project at City Hall.
“For several years, we’ve been spending a lot of money on capital projects, and so it was anticipated that — I think it was anticipated — that it was going to decrease because they had more than what the council said was absolutely necessary,” Dougherty said.
The Public Works Department’s street improvement fund spent $1.15 million on downtown improvements in 2018, but will decrease spending to $250,000 in 2019. Spending on new streets and street improvements, however, will increase from $42,000 in 2018 to $1.05 million in 2019, with the planned extension of South Elm Street next to the site of the community park.
Some departments are making cuts, but capital spending will increase next year in the water and airport funds, both of which are enterprise funds that charge fees for services to pay for improvements.
The water fund spent an estimated $770,000 on capital projects in 2018 and will increase spending to $1 million in 2019. The water fund next year will spend $710,000 to replace 4,400 linear feet of water distribution piping, $77,000 to upgrade valves at the hydro treatment plant and $135,000 to conduct a leak survey.
At the Cortez Municipal Airport, a project that began in 2013 is expected to be completed in 2019. The taxiway shoulder project will expand the existing 50-foot-wide taxiway with 20-foot shoulders.
The airport enterprise fund will cover 5 percent of the costs, the Colorado Division of Aeronautics will cover 5 percent, and the Federal Aviation Administration will pay for 90 percent. The airport fund has budgeted $1.46 million in 2019 for the project.
“We have not had any maintenance out there for a number of years because all the grants just dried up,” Dougherty said. “Now FAA and different federal agencies are being funded again, and their primary focus is the small, rural airports.”
Dougherty said the municipal airport, like the Cortez Community Network, is a boon to economic development. Public and private sector workers in Cortez can opt for an hour-plus flight to Denver instead of a seven-hour drive.
The 2019 budget includes wage and salary increases, primarily because the Colorado minimum wage will increase to $11.10 per hour, up from $10.20 per hour, on Jan. 1. The Parks and Recreation Department has the most minimum-wage employees, including lifeguards and seasonal help. The city also increased pay for the five wage levels above minimum wage to reduce salary compression, a sometimes demoralizing development that occurs when starting salaries for new employees grow too close to wages of existing workers or more skilled and experienced employees.
Dougherty also said some employees will receive merit-based raises.
Dougherty said salaries represent the largest chunk of personnel services, but rising health insurance costs are hurting the city budget.
“In all likelihood, we’re going to have to figure something else out,” Dougherty said. “If we raised deductibles, then we can lower the cost, but that’s more money out of employees’ pockets.”
Residents require a balancing actDougherty said he feels like some residents don’t want Cortez to spend anything. Some would be happy with dirt roads and wells instead of the city taking care of those problems, he said.
The $1.15 million spent in 2018 on downtown improvements paid for ADA-compliant ramps on Main Street intersections, which Dougherty said “are really a necessity,” as well as the medians. He said he thinks it would be foolish for the city to invest money in infrastructure and then let it deteriorate.
“If you let these things go and there is no maintenance, it’s not long before everybody notices — whether it’s residents or people just passing through — it’s this town doesn’t take care of themselves, it’s not an attractive place for new families or retirees to come to,” he said.
Spending on infrastructure might encourage a business to expand or relocate to Cortez, providing more revenue over time. In the same vein, Dougherty said the Cortez Police Department often loses officers who take jobs with other law enforcement agencies that pay more. Paying more on salaries costs more up front, but could save money on training and turnover over time.
“We’ve all got the same problem. It’s just a general problem that some places can afford to spend more and some can’t,” Dougherty said.
New finance director starts in JanuaryThe budget process will look different next year. Dougherty said the city on Dec. 10, finalized the hiring of Ben Burkett as the next finance director. He will start in mid-January, when Moss retires.
Burkett lives in the Denver area but grew up in Cortez and graduated from Montezuma-Cortez High School. He currently works as a technology business management manager at Hitachi Vantara and has experience as an auditor.
“The primary strength that he had over everyone else is he had a number of years as an auditor,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty said he views Burkett’s connection to Cortez as an asset, and he hopes current Montezuma-Cortez High School students will realize there are plenty of jobs in city government.
“For those who work hard and get good grades in school, there are a lot of jobs here at the city that pay pretty darn good when it comes down to it and don’t require college degrees,” Dougherty said.