COUNTY BEAT: 2022 budget nearing final approval

Governmental budgets are really confusing to most people, including us. With many numbers based on estimates, and constantly shifting allocations from one fund to another, last minute cuts and additions, reallocations, etc., some numbers listed here may not be totally up to date, though they’re likely to all be pretty close to accurate (for now). The good news is that if you really want to, you can get the most up-to-date information at the next county budget meeting on Dec. 7. Following that meeting, the board will adopt the final 2022 budget on Dec. 14.

Rio Blanco County staff and officials are nearly ready to finalize the 2022 budget after an exhaustive, weeks-long process.

Following the theme of last year’s budget cycle, defined by a focus on declining revenues, consolidation of job responsibilities, and ultimately cuts — department heads, elected officials and special districts this year came into the process a step ahead, having already slimmed down their operating budgets to what they considered to be key necessities. 

As far as expenditures are concerned, most of the individual proposed 2022 departmental budgets came in either flat, or slightly under 2021 numbers at the beginning of the process.

Despite this, the majority of the 21-plus hours of budgetary meetings were dedicated to pouring through each one of the department’s budgets in detail, and discussing “new project” funding requests from departments. Other aspects of the meetings focused on a bigger picture assessment of the county’s finances heading into next year.

Facing an 8.7% reduction in assessed valuation, the county’s operating budget is looking comparatively good for next year. As currently proposed, operating revenues will exceed expenditures in 2022 by more than $400K at the low end. High end estimates of an operating budget surplus are more than $1 million.

Budget and Finance Director Janae Stanworth attributed the surplus to various factors:

• Less local taxpayer money allocated to Public Health (due to offset by federal grant funding)

• Less expense for Department of Human Services from sharing employees with Moffat County

• Staff positions that have not yet been filled, despite being allocated in the budget

• Individual departments cutting back “fluff” and not overspending

• Prior consolidation of responsibilities (during 2021 budget process)

• A 25% increase in county sales tax from 2021 (+500K)

• A higher Federal Mineral Lease allocation compared to 2021 (+500K)

In addition to specific revenue adjustments both positive and negative, operating funds/property tax revenues are not being used to pay for projects in 2022. Projects next year will instead be paid for out of existing fund balances. The board selected from a long list of potential new projects next year, prioritizing “critical needs” which will cost $650-700K all totaled. These allocations all come from specific funds which only allow for certain uses, like capital improvements as opposed to paying staff salaries. The funds are Enterprise (which includes a number of individual funds), Commissioner Discretionary Grant Fund (CDGF), and the County Capital Improvement Trust Fund (CCITF).

The largest chunk of new project funding will come from the communications fund, and will total $1.3 million. This will include the replacement of a network firewall at its end-of-life use ($150K), a new fiber-splicing van and related equipment ($42K), and an allocation of $72K to start saving towards $500K of “equipment replacement” contingency within five years. Remaining communications fund allocations will pay to upgrade solar power/capacity at broadband wireless towers.

Some other new projects approved for 2022 are:

• $25K to purchase a boiler/water heater to have on-hand, likely to be used for Fairfield apartments, whose boiler/heater are due for replacement (Fairfield Complex Fund).

• $25K for a justice center control PC upgrade (necessary to keep certain functions of the building operational) and $18K to outfit two vehicles with required law enforcement equipment (CDGF).

• $257K for an RMS/CAD upgrade for the Sheriff’s Department (CCITF).

• $50K for a tarp/cover deployment system at the landfill (Solid Waste Landfill Fund).

Based on latest numbers, other money not included in the operating budget are contingencies for the general fund ($1.016 million) and road and bridge ($465K), and about $199K of projects that carry over from 2021, including the ongoing Meeker Airport drainage project. The board also has emergency funds remaining in use tax grants ($112K), commissioner discretionary grant fund ($257K), and capital improvements/CCITF ($454K)

The county has also allocated $100K for a new patrol vehicle, and combined $161K for an overfill container and new fuel dispenser at the Rangely Airport, all of which will come out of the Fleet Management fund.

In the most recent budget meetings, commissioners and county staff discussed another major expense: raising wages across the board. Commissioner Ty Gates shared his perspective on the raise, which he considered a necessity over concerns of employee retention/remaining competitive with other employers. According to HR Director Laura Smith, a majority of county employees are currently paid below the 25th percentile based on their job responsibilities. Commissioner Gary Moyer noted that board policy to keep employee wages above that threshold was “set years ago” and argued that the current board “wasn’t obligated to follow policy set forth prior to us.” Expressing further concerns over declining revenues in the long-term, he said, “We’ve got to reduce expenses somewhere. It may be the number of employees.”

Commissioner Rector chimed in, “We all decided we want to do something for employees this year,” pointing out that the task at hand was to determine the best path forward for employee raises in 2022. With that in mind, the board agreed to raise wages to get all employees above the 25th percentile, with a maximum increase capped at $5K. All county employees will also receive a $1,000/year pay increase across the board. Said raises are estimated to cost about $500K.


By LUCAS TURNER | lucas@ht1885.com

Clarification

In last week’s County Beat, RBC Public Information and Program Manager Carly Thomson said she misspoke when she said the county might lose 10-12 employees due to lack of daycare facilities, and meant to say there are currently 10-12 county employees in need of daycare facilities for their children.