La Plata County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the 2020 budget, which represents a modest turnaround for investments in staff, infrastructure and services after years of dramatic declines resulting from a downturn in the local oil and gas industry.
The county expects about $66.5 million in revenue in the coming year, with sales tax the largest source at around $17 million. The 2020 budget also anticipates about $86.9 million in spending.
The difference of about $20 million, county officials say, result from the costs of one-time projects covered by the fund balance, money the county has saved from past years when revenues exceeded spending. The 2020 budget anticipates revenues to exceed expenditures for operating costs by more than $3 million.
Some of the major highlights in spending include raises for county employees. County officials say stagnating wages have caused high turnover rates, affecting staff morale and the ability to provide services to residents.
As part of the new budget, county officials are proposing rehiring about 10 of 21 positions left vacant to deal with the dwindling budget, mostly in the Department of Human Services and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
A few road improvement projects are slated for 2020, including paving about 3 miles of County Road 210 and about 2 miles of County Road 502. Guardrail work is also scheduled for county roads 250 and 509. And the intersection of County Road 509 and Bayfield Parkway will be improved.
A $390,000 new autopsy room for the La Plata County Coroner’s Office at the old jail is also included in the budget. Since the early 2000s, the county has contracted with Hood Mortuary to use its facilities, but increasingly, the Coroner’s Office faces a workload that requires more space.
Also, the county intends to fund four new security guards for about $313,000 to help patrol county buildings, have a presence at large gatherings like commissioner meetings and help the Sheriff’s Office with extra staffing.
“It was a pleasure to embark on this journey with our relatively new staff,” said Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, referring to the new county manager and finance director, among other new staff. “I’m particularly excited we’re making more investment in our employees, our greatest resource.”
Since 2010, La Plata County’s property tax revenue has declined about 50% – from $29.4 million to $14.9 million in 2018 – mostly a result from a steep drop in natural gas prices in the county.
The fall in property tax revenue has resulted in La Plata County having less money for its operating budget, causing the county to cut services to residents, reduce staff and not embark on as many maintenance projects, such as improving roads.
But officials say the county is now in a healthy position to start making modest investments in services and staffing.
“This was a pretty dramatic change in terms of philosophy,” said County Manager Chuck Stevens. “Honestly, the board (of commissioners) had to take a leap of faith.”
Commissioner Julie Westendorff said the budget declines have finally evened out, allowing the county to reinvest funds in some critical aspects of county government. But the modest turnaround is no reason to start spending irresponsibly.
“I don’t want the public under any illusion that ... the cotton is high again like it used to be,” she said. “We’re just managing in a different financial world than we have in the past.”