Declining revenue blamed for crisis

Falling property values, increasing expenses cited as reasons for budget cuts

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Moffat County Commissioner Les Hampton blamed declining property assessment values and increasing expenses for the county's current financial woes at a meeting with county employees on Wednesday.

At the meeting, Hampton presented his explanation of the county's financial crisis to county employees.

Hampton said the presentation was for information purposes only. He did not explain why certain drops in county income occurred, nor did he provide solutions to the problems these drops presented.

About four dozen county employees viewed Hampton's presentation at Shadow Mountain Clubhouse, a building that may soon be closed as the commissioners attempt to balance the 2004 budget.

Hampton cited depreciating property values as a major contributing factor to the current financial crisis.

"These are external issues that have had an impact on us," Hampton said.

In 2002, property in Moffat County was assessed at $321,878,318. In 2003, the property was assessed at $296,490,980, a difference of $25,387,338.

Most of that difference came from a $24,152,353 depreciation in oil and gas properties. That's a major problem for the county, because its top 10 property tax payers are energy companies.

In 2002, the county collected $6,726,991 in property taxes. This year, projected revenue from property taxes totaled $6,196,365. That's a projected decrease of $530,626.

Since 1994, the state assessed value of Tri-State Generation and Transmission has been steadily declining, from about $125 million to just under $80 million. That same year, the current county commissioners reduced the mill levy to return some tax money to the taxpayers. That would prove to be a problem as property values fell.

Hampton said recent financial losses have far outweighed financial gains. The county lost $450,000 in 2001, and again lost $530,000 this year, both due to state property evaluations.

Financial gains in 2003 were $137,000 less than losses. The county collected $300,000 from public lands and $133,000 from contracts to house Department of Corrections and Immigration Naturalization Services prisoners.

Rising expenses further compounded the county's problems. Hampton said the rising cost of health and liability insurance and the implementation of an employee compensation plan increased general fund expenses by 15 percent over the last five years.

The rising cost of liability insurance and general maintenance at the Public Safety Center has increased jail fund expenses by 22 percent since 2001.

Decreased sales tax revenue has also hurt the county. Hayden, Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs have all seen sales tax revenues fall since 1998, but Craig has taken the hardest hit, going from 9.8 percent in 1998 to about negative 14 percent in 2001.

After the presentation, Nancy Hettinger, sheriff department administrative assistant, asked Hampton what the county's 2004 budget, known as Plan B, is. She voiced fears that she might lose her job.

"The plan is to take a more severe look at the budget and make $400,000 in cuts," Hampton said. He said some county jobs will be cut.

He didn't want to say what jobs would be cut because he doesn't feel confident about the current budget numbers. Jack Bonaker of Bonaker and Associates CPAS PC has been hired to check budget figures before the budget goes to the state for approval on Dec. 15.

Commissioner Darryl Steele admitted the commissioners would not be able to meet their goal of finishing 2003 with an ending fund balance of $1.9 million, the amount they are required to have by county resolution.

Because they will fall short, the commissioners will likely pass a new resolution, requiring an ending fund balance of whatever the county has this year.

Steele said it is taking so long to come up with a budget because he wants to make sure the solution the commissioners develop will work for the long term.

"My concern is we're going to put a Band-Aid on a cancer," Steele said.

Steele and Hampton both said the commissioners have not been in agreement over what needs cut.

"What you're experiencing here is a lot of different opinions," Hampton said. "If you spoke to all three commissioners, you'd come out with a myriad of plans."

Lynette Running, Human Resources Department Director, criticized the board for not standing by proposed budget cuts.

"If you're going to try to save money, you need to make these cuts and not back out if it upsets people," Running said, referring to the sick leave cut the commissioners made on Tuesday and rescinded on Wednesday when employees in the road and bridge department complained.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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