With a $2.3 million budget shortfall, four jobs are on the chopping block

RBC I Budget work sessions last week culminated in two special meetings Monday and Tuesday as commissioners tackle a shortfall now expected to reach $2.3 million.

Late Friday after work sessions, the board issued a notice for a special meeting on Monday at 8 a.m. to discuss “county restructuring due to budget constraints” and an executive session to discuss personnel matters. The board also scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 1, to vote on the restructuring plan that would impact multiple departments and result in the loss of four full-time employee positions, again followed by an executive session to discuss personnel matters. 

The lack of specificity on the agendas may be in violation of Colorado’s Sunshine Laws, according to Jeff Roberts, Executive Director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. Colorado Revised Statutes for the Colorado Open Meetings Law states, “The statutory provision requiring the notice to include ‘specific agenda information where possible,’ § -6-402(2)(c), simply requires the public body to include specific agenda information in its posting when it is ‘possible’ to do so-that is, when that information is available at the time of posting. The statute provides, ‘The posting shall include specific agenda information where possible.’ §24-6-402(2)(c) Thus, if at the time of ‘posting,’ it is ‘possible’ to include specific agenda information, the notice ‘shall’ include that information,” Roberts stated via email.

RBC Sheriff Anthony Mazzola said he was notified Friday evening by Commissioner Gary Moyer that the board “had decided” to contract local dispatch services to the Colorado State Patrol’s call center effective Jan. 1, 2021 and that Mazzola needed to have his employees at the Monday meeting. On Monday, board chair Jeff Rector said while they are in discussion with the Colorado State Patrol, no decision has been made and there had been a “miscommunication” with the sheriff’s office. Rector instructed people to “listen to the work sessions,” however, work sessions are not recorded by the board.

At Monday’s meeting, in a crowded room, multiple residents spoke up on behalf of dispatch, primarily citing the need for “local knowledge” to provide quality services and the taxpayer money already spent on the communications room at the Justice Center. 

Commissioners were urged to “think about the essential.” 

Former Colorado State Patrolman Rob Baughman said the Craig call center dispatches for CSP from the Eisenhower Tunnel to the Utah border. 

Town of Meeker Trustee Wendy Gutierrez urged the current board, “Do not leave in your wake a crippled dispatch,” and mentioned the taxpayer money already spent on the communications center at the justice center. 

Dispatcher Rhawnie McGruder shared audio clips from local 911 calls in which local area knowledge was critical to getting responders to the right place.

Detentions Center Lt. Mike Reist explained the value of having dispatch available to cover the control room for the jail when two deputies are needed at the same time, and closed his comments by saying,  “I didn’t think it would be you guys who wanted to defund the police.”

Several residents suggested they would be willing to pay more — whether through sales tax or additional 911 surcharges — to keep dispatch local. That prompted a change to Tuesday’s agenda wherein the board discussed asking voters to approve a 1% sales tax increase dedicated to funding dispatch. 

The board has until Friday to add a sales tax measure to the November ballot. 

Meeker resident Becky Ridings told the board Tuesday, “I walked away yesterday with a lot of concerns,” and asked how the idea of cutting local dispatch came about. 

Rector said the idea has been floated for “about a year,” but added they don’t have specific numbers. A meeting with CSP to discuss the idea further is scheduled for Sept. 22. 

Former Meeker Town Manager Sharon Day urged the board to take a year and use some of their reserves, which totaled $17.7 million as of Dec. 31, 2019, before making drastic decisions. “Reserves are put in place to take a year, to take time to listen to your public, listen to your employees, and see how innovative we can be to come up with better plans than just start axing a lot of people’s jobs,” she said. “I would just encourage you to be calm, to go ahead and put the money in your budget for next year. You’ve got it in reserves.” Resident Sheryl Myers agreed with Day’s suggestion, as did Undersheriff Jeremy Muxlow.

The commissioners were asked how they came to the decisions to merge some departments and cut some staff.  

“We had everybody do an employee evaluation and asked them to describe what they did in their own words,” Rector said. 

Based on those evaluations, commissioners said they determined a number of departments and positions could be combined or done away with to save money.

“For a number of these, we’re rewriting those job descriptions where we’re merging and we’ll advertise those jobs and anyone will be welcome to apply, especially those who are already working for the county. The end result is four less full-time employees.” Moyer said. Any current employees in positions that may be part of the restructuring will need to reapply for their jobs.

One position which would be absorbed by another department is that of Sales and Use Tax. Director Deb Morlan, who has held the role for more than two decades, opted to have her personnel discussions in public, instead of in executive session, and had several people speak up for her on Tuesday. 

Meeker outfitter Curtis Cherry said, “She’s our local representative. She’s been good at it and she keeps a lot of us out of trouble. I don’t know how much money that particular department raises but I think it’s kind of self-supporting.”

Both town managers also spoke on Morlan’s behalf, commending the job she does for both towns and the county. 

“If I go, you’re going to lose a quarter million [dollars], and I’ve got the figures to prove it,” Morlan told the board. 

Under the restructuring, Morlan’s duties would be handled by the budget department. Morlan addressed issues with state confidentiality requirements, and the need for time to train a replacement. “You can’t just pull up a chair,” she told commissioners. A final decision has not yet been made by the board. 

According to the information presented Monday, Economic Development, Natural Resources, Emergency Management, Planning, GIS and Building departments would be consolidated into one new department, eliminating two full-time positions.

Other cuts discussed include combining IT and communications into one department, eliminating one full time position; cutting the building inspector from full-time to 24 hours a week; decreasing use tax grants and conservation district funds by 25%; and furloughing county employees one day a week. 

All departments were also asked to decrease actual expenditures by 5%, which would theoretically make up for $1 million of the budget deficit. Monday’s presentation also listed “consolidating assets” and “assess all program services – what is mandatory by statute?” as well as the option of decreasing all wages by 13% (from an average hourly wage of $25.37 per hour to $22.07 per hour) or having county employees pay a portion of their health insurance. Health insurance costs the county $2.85 million per year and that number is expected to continue to increase.

The preliminary budget will be presented in a public meeting on Oct. 15.

In other business, the board approved a $996 mass mailing to all county residents outlining the 2021 budget direction.

The commissioners also approved an $8,000 contract with Goedert Construction for the Meeker Airport Drainage Project to begin addressing flooding issues that have caused property damage for some residents below the airport.