It is hard to believe that the end of the year is approaching, but the chilly temperatures, snow on the mountains and the fact that we are in budget season for 2020 all prove that it’s true. As we look toward next year, your county commissioners are excited because we believe we have an opportunity to move the county forward and better serve citizens. We are making changes in how we budget and prioritize county resources and tax dollars. To do this well in the years to come, we need to hear from our community members.
While we have a proposed budget that invests in serving our community, we are looking to you, our citizens, to craft a vision for La Plata County beyond an annual budget cycle. In the new year, the Board of County Commissioners will kick off a community process to identify and lay out county-wide priorities. The board aims to address an array of pressing needs that support the entire community, and that effort can be far more successful if community members are engaged in the process.
We’re no longer strappedThanks to years of aggressive prudence and conservative budgeting by the board and senior county management, the county has weathered the uncertain future of declining property tax revenues. This is good news because we think we have arrived at our new normal and we can budget accordingly, rather than fearing that each coming year will be worse than the last.
Aggressive cost-cutting created gaps between demand for county services and our ability to meet that demand with personnel and materials. One of the consequences of tightening the belt like the county has over the last several years has been a large reduction in staff. Through attrition and vacancy management, the county has held 21 positions open over the past two years.
We got a bit behindHow did that gap look to the public? Backlog for instance: at the Building Department, at Human Services, in Road and Bridge projects.
Building plan review in the Building Department has sometimes been weeks behind schedule due to short staffing. This hurts homeowners, businesses and contractors who are all trying to complete construction projects during good weather.
La Plata County’s Human Services department has a 1,000-plus document backlog in processing cases, delaying access to health care and food assistance benefits for many families. To reduce the backlog, La Plata County has been outsourcing some of this work to other counties, paying a premium to provide services to our own residents.
The Road and Bridge department has a list of long-delayed projects and reduced services that you can see and feel as you drive some of our county roads.
Similarly, the commissioners aim to realign budget priorities to correct deficiencies in our basic infrastructure – upgrading key roads; to catch up on other upkeep and replacement of infrastructure; to develop efficient and cost-saving projects; and to take advantage of economic development opportunities to help our county thrive.
We can show you the moneyWhere will the funding come from? It’s already here.
Our county’s conservative approach to budgeting has put us in a position where we have been delivering services and investing in infrastructure at a rate below our revenue each year. That has left us with a slowly growing general fund balance as well as more room in our operating budgets than we have been fully utilizing – in other words, we have been saving reserves in anticipation of worst-case scenarios. Now, we are in the new normal of revenues and we can be confident putting those unanticipated savings to work for the public.
Part of the solution will be in the county’s 2020 budget, proposing to refill half of the vacant positions, primarily for public safety and human services.
Planning strategicallyThis new approach reflects a shift in thinking in county government. It’s the reality that county revenue has been stabilized after big hits from the drop in natural gas price and production and state Gallagher Amendment impacts. After seven years of strict belt-tightening, we now know how tight to wear the belt, which makes it time to realign some of our basic budget approaches and priorities.
It’s the kind of strategic planning that’s needed to serve the public better, and it’s also the way to earn the public’s faith and build confidence in those who are elected to make county government work.
This is also an opportunity to reach out to the public and bring it into the budgeting process – to be open and transparent with our citizen-taxpayers about how the county can best serve them. This is just the start of that conversation. Stay tuned.
Julie Westendorff is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970) 382-6219.