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Drastic cuts anticipated in 2014 county budget

by Eric Mullens
WALSENBURG — Building the county’s budget is sort of like driving down a curve-filled mountain road using only your rear-view mirror, said Huerfano County Administrator John Galusha this week. You might remember where the curves were last year, but that doesn’t mean you will face the same curves this year.
The national sequestration and slow economic recovery are some of the curves Huerfano county administration and commissioners face in the 2014 budget process.
Galusha told the Huerfano World Journal this week, the county faces an approximate 17% reduction in the county’s general fund budget which amounts to about $300,000. On top of that, the county faces a ten percent increase in county employee health insurance which amounts to $200,000.
With the dismal financial situation facing the county, employees will not see any pay increases in the coming budget cycle, in fact four or five position cuts are expected.
Last year’s budget process seemed much more optimistic as construction and production with Black Hills Energy’s wind farm and work at El Paso Gas was anticipated to bring higher state assessed valuations, and thus addition funds into county coffers. Galusha said it was thought the increased valuation would be around $17 million, but it turned out to be about ten percent of that. That greatly diminished anticipated funds. “We had hoped for an increase of $80,000 to $120,000 from the state valuation, but that didn’t happen,” Galusha said.
The county commissioners will face a harsh reality as they begin work on next year’s budget, having to cut 17%, fund the insurance increase and make hard decisions regarding programs and personnel. “A county is a service industry,” Galusha explained, “and like all service businesses, personnel costs are the lion’s share.” He said over 60% of county general budget costs are personnel related.
In addition to employee cuts, county funding in all areas will be closely scrutinized.
The multi-year project concerning construction of a new ambulance barn has gone through at least three design changes as funds have decreased. The latest plan calls for the elimination of six vehicle bays for SCCOG (South Central Council of Governments) vehicles and no building expansion. The county has set aside $175,000 for the project and DOLA funding is at $160,000. Galusha said the county will be requesting a re-purposing agreement for the DOLA funds and, if approved, there will be remodeling to the current ambulance barn, but no new construction. Galusha said another issue affecting the-then anticipated $1.2 million project, was an anticipated loan agreement of $440,000 the county wanted to secure with the new ambulance building itself being used as collateral. He said however the bank did not agree to that and wanted one of the county’s CD’s used instead.
The county ambulance service has also lost revenue with the closing of the private nursing home in Walsenburg, which accounted for about five percent of ambulance service revenue, the loss of an estimated ten percent of revenue to the La Veta Ambulance Service and low collection numbers from the outside billing service the county uses. That area is being looked at currently to see if a change needs to be made to the service provider, or if the drop in collection rates are simply reflecting lower national economic trends.
The commissioners will also be looking at cutting or decreasing funding for non-essential programs. Although final decisions have not been made (budget workshops are expected to begin early next month) cuts to customer favorite programs are expected.
Galusha said he expects the $2,000 annual funding for the adult recreation softball and volleyball programs will be eliminated; county membership in the Action 22 group is expected to be cut; an emergency infrastructure fund built into the 2013 budget and containing approximately $30,000 (used for example to fund the cost of the new control panel and installation for the courthouse elevator) is expected to be cut to $5,000; Predator Control is expected to be cut from $2,500 to $1,000, and Galusha is expected to recommend both he and one commissioner not attend the CCI (Colorado Counties Inc.) Winter Conference. Those are just a few preliminary areas that are being discussed for money saving cuts.
“We’ll have to take a hard look at all the community assistance requests we get,” Galusha said.
The various elected officials submitted their preliminary departmental budget requests last month and administration and the board of commissioners will begin the budget process in early October.