Rio Blanco County 2021 budget discussion recap

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RBC | The preliminary county budget for 2021 is now available for public review on Rio Blanco County’s website, followed by budget workshops with individual county departments beginning Monday, Oct. 19 and stretching into Nov. (the full schedule is included at the bottom of this post.)

Budget discussions so far this year have been more active than usual, following the announcement of a $2.3 million shortfall for 2021 and several proposals for potential ways to cut costs that triggered strong reactions from the public.

To recap those discussions, property tax revenue from oil and gas, which has traditionally supplied the bulk of the county’s budget, has plummeted due to a complex interplay of international markets, supply and demand, a global pandemic and more. Locally, county officials also place blame on state regulations like SB 19-181, which was signed into law April 16. 

Despite multiple attempts to diversify the local economy, nothing has arisen to make up for the losses in property tax revenue from the fossil fuel industry, not to mention decreases in industry-fueled severance taxes, Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and Federal Mineral Lease (FML) payments.

As a result, the 2021 budget is estimated to be $2.3 million short, and commissioners expect it to get worse. “Honestly, we’re going to get through this year. It’s next year that concerns me,” Commissioner Gary Moyer stated during an August meeting.

WRITING ON THE WALL

Although the situation appears desolate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The energy industry traditionally runs on a boom-bust cycle, and has for its 100-plus year history. This year, however, commissioners fear it’s not coming back. 

“The reality of the deal is this isn’t going to get better any time soon,” Commissioner Jeff Rector said in the county’s first budget work session of the year. 

“Short of a miracle falling out of the sky, I don’t see our assessed valuation starting back up significantly, much less not dropping,” Moyer continued.

Rio Blanco County Assessor Renae Nielson has been sounding the alarm for several years. In her own words, Neilson stated she had been “preaching forever” that the county’s assessed value due to oil and gas wasn’t always going to prop up the county’s budget. “And here we are,” she said when addressing the commissioners in early September.

BUDGET DISCUSSIONS

The $2.3 million question in all of this is what the county is going to do about it. Actions taken have involved trying to lure industry back by cutting and even refunding fees (impact fees, for instance, have not been charged for several years) and offering other cost-saving measures. The county has also been heavily involved in trying to bring the Jordan Cove natural gas pipeline to fruition. To date, those efforts have not been successful. Pembina Pipeline Corp, the managing company for the project, is currently mired in legal challenges, and demand for LNG has been hit hard by the pandemic. During the Board of Commissioners regular meeting Tuesday, Rector expressed doubts that the project would ever pan out.

With regard to the 2021 budget specifically, a line-by-line review of board minutes during the past year does not reveal much else, as most discussions appear to have occurred in work sessions, which are not recorded and minutes are not taken.

In the March 10, 2020 meeting, the minutes reference Commissioner Si Woodruff talking about “dispatch changes” following a meeting of the E-911 board. 

The following week, Commissioner Rector referenced a “big hit” to the oil and gas industry. Oil prices plummeted approximately one month later due to a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

According to an HT county beat report from June, Finance Director Janae Stanworth notified commissioners FML funds, severance taxes and PILT would not be included in the budget, but this is not a new practice. “We never budget for FML, severance or PILT in our budget. We will budget those at zero and not expect them next year,” Stanworth told the commissioners in a work session. Those funds are transferred from the federal and state government to counties. “With everything else that’s coming down I can see them [the state] taking all of that money,” she said.  

In July, Stanworth delivered bleak news to department heads about the 2021 budget. Preliminary numbers indicated an 11.5% decrease in revenue due to reduced assessed valuations, primarily tied to oil and gas. 

“That’s a little more than $900,000 we’re pretty sure we’re not going to have in 2021,” she said. “We have to decrease our expenses by that amount of money. That’s about 5% of operations [expenses] right now. The more we can reduce now, the longer we will be able to operate without having to decrease services or personnel or anything else. We aren’t just going to go back up automatically in 2022,” Stanworth said. 

Budget talks ramped up in late August, with preliminary work sessions taking place Aug. 26 and 28. Those discussions culminated in two public meetings Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 after RBC Sheriff Anthony Mazzola told the public via a Facebook post that he had been informed commissioners were considering cutting the local dispatch department. A number of constituents passionately defended dispatch during those meetings.

Other possible cuts discussed in the public meeting included:

  • 5% budget cut across the board, estimated savings $1 million
  • consolidating assets
  • evaluating individual responsibilities/combining positions and/or departments
  • assessing all program services
  • wage decreases, health insurance payments, and furloughs
  • moving local dispatch (please see this week’s story on page 9A for continued coverage of this issue)

COST SAVINGS?

2021-Budget-Discussion-8_31_20

The consolidations of certain departments came from the analysis of job questionnaires completed by all county employees, according to an email sent to commissioners by Stanworth on Aug. 3. 

A budget presentation provided to the public and commissioners pegged savings from department consolidations as follows:

  • Consolidating Economic Development, Natural Resources, Emergency Management, Planning, GIS and Building under a new department, eliminating two positions for a savings of $154,000
  • Combining IT and Communications into one department, eliminating one full time position for savings of $49,000
  • Sales and Use Tax position being eliminated for a savings of $85,000

Additionally, decreasing the building inspector from full time to 24 hours/week would save $35,000, decreasing use tax grants by 25% would save $4,000, decreasing conservation district funding by 25% would save $25,000, and a one day furlough for county employees would save $315,000.

Total projected savings, according to the presentation, were $707,000.

However, further review suggests it won’t be that simple.

CORA REQUEST

The HT requested additional documentation of budget discussions via a Colorado Open Records Act request after the public questioned exactly when specific deliberations had been made. 

We requested all public records relating to dispatch, the sales and use tax position, and the combining or merging of other county departments. We received about 70 pages of correspondence and, interestingly, three work session recordings. They were not recorded as a part of normal procedure, according to Clerk and Recorder Boots Campbell. “No, I don’t record workshops. The only thing I record are BOCC official meetings. No decision can be made in a workshop, only in an official meeting,” Campbell stated via email. County Attorney Todd Starr, when asked by Commissioner Si Woodruff why workshops weren’t recorded, stated, “the danger and harm far outweighs the benefits of recording them.”

Commissioner Rector had urged the public to listen to the work sessions when asked about budget discussion specifics in the Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 meetings. We reported that those sessions were not available for public review but someone recorded them, and they were turned over as part of the CORA requests. You can listen to the work session discussions and review all the other documentation we received at the end of this post.

A good chunk of the CORA documents were in reference to relocating dispatch, including several letters from constituents. For the latest on the dispatch situation, please read this week’s story on page 9A.

WORK SESSIONS

The Aug. 26 work session recording begins in the middle of a discussion between Rector and Moyer regarding staff benefits and a potential furlough. Woodruff did not attend this work session as he was undergoing a dental procedure.

A one-day per month furlough of all full time staff members would have gotten the county where they needed to be numbers-wise, but at the time, commissioners did not have final FML numbers to work with. The commissioners also briefly discussed benefits and retirement rates as options for cutting the county budget. Moyer asked, “I hate to even bring this up, but how many employees would have to be cut on average to accomplish the same goal [as a county furlough]?” Rector responded, “about four and a half.” Moyer asked what difference the public would see and stated he felt a one day furlough would be less impactful. “We obviously have to look at where we can consolidate and eliminate. What you presented us here, some thoughts on what could be consolidated, is kind of the numbers we could look at,” Moyer stated. The HT did not receive a copy of the documentation Moyer referenced, but it was likely working documents prepared by the budget office.

The Aug. 28 work session opened with bad news. The county’s FML payment was $250,000 less than anticipated. “Typically we receive it this year and it’s available for us to budget to spend next year so this just reduces. The budget we’ve been working on for 2021 is not including those funds because we don’t budget for it. So it’s not much less we’ll have to spend next year, but it’s not part of what we were already budgeting for, although it is part of the decline.”

Commissioners agreed they’d be dipping into reserves for 2020, but “for 2021, we don’t know,” Stanworth stated.

They later doubled down on a commitment not to use reserves for 2021 in public messaging.

Moyer told the HT that commissioners were considering “a multitude of options” as part of the budget process, noting since future revenues are going to be on a downward trajectory, “burning up our savings is fiscally irresponsible.” He added that “no decisions are final.”

In addition to approximately $17.7 million in general fund reserves, the County’s total fund balance listed in the adopted 2020 budget was just over $69 million, though the majority of that amount was already allocated. Examples include $7.1 million in the Road and Bridge fund, $5.1 million in the Solid Waste Landfill Fund, and $7.6 million in Fleet Management Fund. 

The largest fund, sitting at $24.2 million, is the County Capital Improvement Trust Fund (CCITF) which can only be allocated for capital projects. It is one of three capital funds in the county, though Stanworth said it is “very much different and separate” than other county funds. Still, she noted that the CCITF could be used to pay for county-related capital projects in 2021 as another way to help balance the budget, but “decisions made on what we’re going to do with CCITF this coming year haven’t been discussed yet,” said Stanworth.

Woodruff asked if his fellow commissioners wanted to stay on the same “road” after the FML payment came in, asking, “My fear is, we’re hearing it a million times. This is the tip of the iceberg,” Woodruff said. “Whatever you guys decide to get that extra quarter million just rest assured that I’ll say I voted against it.” 

Woodruff ran on a promise not to cut positions in 2016. According to an HT report, when asked how the candidates would cut back if necessary and whether county wages and employee benefits be affected, Woodruff replied that if cuts were needed, he would hope such actions would be the last resort, and stated he would cut benefits before people.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT/GIS & PLANNING/NATURAL RESOURCES/EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT

The lengthiest discussion revolved around the potential consolidation of multiple departments under one new department head. Moyer said he envisioned that department head encompassing public information or “government affairs,” acting as a commissioner assistant, and administrative aid; a combined emergency management, natural resources and economic development position with GIS/planning, and a part time person in the building department. 

Despite the reduction in staffing, and projections of $154,000 in potential savings in a budget presentation, Stanworth was not confident the consolidation would save money. “Combining this may help with not having as many department heads, but I don’t think wage-wise it’s really going to do anything,” she said. 

“And then that department head over all of it,” Stanworth continued, “that wage is going to be a little higher. You’re probably looking at more money possibly to consolidate all of that after looking at all of it,” she said.

“It’s just how we structure all that,” Moyer responded.

“All we figured out is we’re really not saving that much money,” Woodruff stated. 

“No, it’s a matter of how do we structure it,” Moyer responded. 

Rector later told the HT that “the sole purpose [of restructuring] is to save money,” but “until that proposed budget comes out, nobody knows the answer to that question.”

“All we figured out is we’re really not saving that much money.”

Commissioner Si Woodruff on potentially combining several departments as part of the budget process

Commissioner-elect and current Emergency Manager Ty Gates told the HT that he was “very opposed” to the idea of creating a new position while asking existing departments to potentially cut personnel.  He also said certain responsibilities listed under the new job description for Government Affairs don’t entirely make sense. For example, the board of commissioners already has a dedicated part-time administrative assistant who Gates said “should [already] be filling that role of commissioner coordinator.” Referencing the responsibilities related to economic development, Gates said, “if you look at natural resources in general in our county, they’re all (for the most part) global companies, they don’t need economic development to promote their product, they just don’t.”  

Stanworth pointed out that any change in cost would depend on who takes the new positions, as wages could come down for either the new department head, or EM (emergency manager) depending on who was hired.

Moyer pointed out that with the combined experience of the 2021 board members, the county could achieve cost savings by hiring “less qualified” applicants for the new positions. Deficiencies in qualifications and/or experience would then be made up with guidance from the board.  

In order to assess the cost savings, commissioners decided to go ahead with posting a Director of Public Affairs position and Emergency Manager position, as well as an Administrative Assistant position to “float” between departments, on Oct. 1 (This administrative assistant position would replace that of the former full-time assistant in the building department as part of the restructure.) “We need to have those hires already lined up,” Moyer stated.

Those are three of six total positions posted by the county as part of their projected restructure.

SALES AND USE TAX

Commissioner Moyer pitched the idea of absorbing the sales and use tax department into the budget and finance office. “I can’t help but wonder with existing staff in the budget office if there’s a possibility of absorbing those duties,” he stated. Stanworth replied, “I think wherever it goes if we decrease that position it’s going to mean a lot of training for somebody.”

Sales and use tax is one of very few county departments that brings in substantial revenue for the county, averaging $757,680 per year in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The funds collected by the department are used to pay for various services including the Radino Building, and Columbine Park in Rangely, senior transportation services in Meeker and Rangely, the White River Roundup senior nutrition program, and various use tax grants awarded to entities like the Rangely Museum, Meeker and Rangely Chambers of Commerce, Colorado West Mental Health and others.

“It’s going to obviously minimize the focus on collecting sales and use tax. I think we know that and that could affect our revenue but we also know that there’s changes at the state, so that allows us to kind of justify that,” Moyer said. He later told the HT that the sales and use tax department’s impact on revenue was “a matter of opinion,” saying “I think the people that are generating the tax and writing the checks are the ones that are having the impact, the position is in question, whether it’s necessary or not.”

 Both town managers stated they felt the position was important and that current employee Deb Morlan does a good job. 

“The Colorado Department of Revenue is responsible for administering all state sales tax collections although our county sales and use tax department oversees the remittances to ensure they go to the correct entity [Meeker, Rangely or the county]. Anytime someone who has longevity in a department leaves, all that experience and knowledge goes with them and there is always a learning curve,” Meeker Town Manager Lisa Cook stated via email.

Cutting that position was listed as saving $85,000 in the budget presentation, but an email exchange between Stanworth and Human Resources director Laura Smith discussed how an additional non-exempt position in Stanworth’s department to fill that role may end up costing $46,494 on average. 

COMMUNICATIONS & IT

Communications and IT departments could potentially be consolidated under one department head. Currently there are two employees in each department and the restructure would cut one position. The county began advertising for an Information Systems Director, an Information Systems Network Engineer and an Information Systems Technician Oct. 1. 

Constituents will be able to examine the preliminary 2021 budget today, Oct. 15, to see what the county is moving forward with and what actual cost savings may be. View that document here: https://rbc.us/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/1027

CORA DOCUMENTS AND WORK SESSION RECORDINGS

Review all the documentation we received from our CORA request and listen to the work session recordings below.

Email-Correspondence-Herald-CORA-PART-1

Herald-Response-Letter-09-14-2020-Part-2

PUBLIC NOTICES

The Notice of Proposed Budget and Notice of Budget Workshops were posted in the public notices section of the HT Oct. 15 and are available in full below.

NOTICE AS TO PROPOSED BUDGET

Notice is hereby given that a copy of the Y2021 proposed budget for the General Fund, Capital Expenditure Fund, Road & Bridge Fund, Public Health Agency Fund, Human Services Fund, Capital Improvement Plan Fund, Use Tax Fund, Impact Fee Trust Fund, Conservation Trust Fund, Solid Waste Landfill Fund, Weed and Pest Control Fund, Communications Fund, Piceance Creek Pest Control District, Lower White River Pest Control District, Fairfield Complex Fund, Central Service Fund, Fleet Management Fund, Contingent Fund, and the County Capital Improvement Trust Fund has been filed in the office of the County Clerk and Recorder, 555 Main Street, Meeker, Colorado and the County Clerk and Recorder office, Rangely Town Hall, 209 E. Main Street, Rangely, Colorado, and are open for public inspection 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. on normal work days.

Such proposed budgets will be considered at public hearings of the Board of County Commissioners starting the week of October 19, 2020, Rio Blanco County Historic Courthouse, 3rd Floor-Commissioners Meeting Room, 555 Main Street, Meeker, Colorado. A final public hearing of the Board of County Commissioners will be held on Tuesday, December 15, 2020, at 6:00 p.m., Rio Blanco County Historic Courthouse, 3rd Floor-Commissioners Meeting Room, 555 Main Street, Meeker, Colorado.

Any interested elector within such County may inspect the proposed budgets and file or register any objections hereto at any time prior to the final adoption of the budgets. The proposed budget is also available for review on the County’s website: www.rbc.us

If you require special accommodations for the hearing, please call the Commissioners’ office at 970-878-9683 seven days in advance of the hearing so that reasonable accommodations may be made.

RIO BLANCO COUNTY

BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS

ss/Jeff Rector

Chairman

Published: October 15 and 22, 2020

Rio Blanco Herald Times

NOTICE OF BUDGET WORKSHOPS

The Board of County Commissioners will hold Department Budget Workshops on October 19 through November 5, 2020 at the Historic Courthouse, 555 Main Street, 3rd floor BOCC Hearing Room in Meeker, CO. On Tuesday, October 20, 2020 the Workshop will be held in Rangely, CO at the Rio Blanco County Annex Building, 17497 Hwy 64. If you need special accommodations please call (970) 878-9440 in advance of the workshops so that reasonable accommodations may be made. The start time for each day is listed below, department workshops will follow in order listed:

Monday, October 19, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· BOCC/Finance/Central Services/IFTF/CTF

· Public Affairs

· Sales & Use Tax

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 (Rangely) starting at 1:00 PM

· Rangely Airport

· Columbine Park

Wednesday, October 21, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· R&B

· SWL

Thursday, October 22, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· Human Resources

· Coroner

· District Attorney

Friday, October 23, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· Communications/Towers

· IT

Monday, October 26, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· GIS/Mapping

· Planning & County Surveyor

· Building

· Meeker Airport

Tuesday, October 27, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· WR Museum

· Attorney

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· DHS

· WRR

Thursday, October 29, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· Weed & Pest

· Fairfield

· Clerk & Recorder

Friday, October 30, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· Sheriff’s Office

Monday, November 2, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· Treasurer

· Assessor

· Veterans

· Emergency Management

Tuesday, November, 3, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· Fleet

· Facilities Management

Wednesday, November 4, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· CSU Extension

· Fair Board

· Conservation District

Thursday, November 5, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

· Public Health

Published: October 15, 22 and 29, 2020

Rio Blanco Herald Times

NOTICE OF BUDGET WORKSHOPS (updated 10/16/20)

The Board of County Commissioners will hold Department Budget Workshops on October 19 through November 5, 2020 at the Historic Courthouse, 555 Main Street, 3rd floor BOCC Hearing Room in Meeker, CO. On Tuesday, October 20, 2020 the Workshop will be held in Rangely, CO at the Rio Blanco County Annex Building, 17497 Hwy 64. If you need special accommodations please call (970) 878-9440 in advance of the workshops so that reasonable accommodations may be made. The start time for each day is listed below, department workshops will follow in order listed. 

Monday, October 19, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • BOCC/Finance/Central Services/IFTF/CTF
  • Public Affairs
  • Sales & Use Tax

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 (Rangely) starting at 1:00 PM

  • Rangely Airport
  • Columbine Park 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • R&B
  • SWL

Thursday, October 22, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Human Resources
  • Coroner
  • District Attorney

Friday, October 23, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Communications/Towers
  • IT

Monday, October 26, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • GIS/Mapping
  • Planning & County Surveyor
  • Building
  • Meeker Airport

Tuesday, October 27, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • WR Museum
  • Attorney

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • DHS
  • WRR

Thursday, October 29, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Weed & Pest
  • Fairfield
  • Clerk & Recorder

Friday, October 30, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Sheriff’s Office

Monday, November 2, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Treasurer
  • Assessor
  • Veterans
  • Emergency Management

Tuesday, November, 3, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Fleet
  • Facilities Management

Wednesday, November 4, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • CSU Extension
  • Fair Board
  • Conservation District

Thursday, November 5, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Public Health
  • Wrap Up

Friday, November 6, 2020 starting at 8:30 AM

  • Wrap Up – If Needed

Q&A

Q: Where can I find the county’s proposed budget?

A: The preliminary budget is now available for review at https://rbc.us/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/1027

Q: What happens next?

A: Budget workshops with each department are scheduled for the next few weeks and begin Oct. 19.  These meetings are open to the public.

Q: When will final decisions be made?

A: After workshops, the budget will continue to be adjusted until it is officially adopted in a final public hearing on Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. 

Q: What about local dispatch?

A: Please see the story on page 9A of this week’s edition for continued coverage on the possibility of local dispatch being relocated to Colorado State Patrol’s Craig call center.

Q: How do I file an objection to something in the proposed budget?

A: Any interested elector within the County may register objections with the budget and finance office, according to Clerk and Recorder Boots Campbell. You may send those to janae.stanworth@rbc.us, PO Box 1047, Meeker, CO, 81641 or call 970-878-9440.

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