Most politicians get in trouble by promising more than they deliver. Moffat County Commissioners, on the other hand, are digging a hole for themselves by delivering more than they say the county can afford.
During the final quarter of 2003, the commissioners agonized over the budget and made some tough decisions about where to cut spending. Many hours and much hand-wringing went into the budget debate as commissioners tried to figure out a way to preserve part of last year's budget so they would have enough carryover money to cover revenue shortfalls in 2004.
"We aren't where we want to be," Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said back in November. "We have to continue to watch every penny."
The commission started chopping. They asked all county departments to cut their budgets by 20 percent. They cut several positions, eliminated perks for county employees and told them they would have to take five days unpaid furlough in 2004. They instituted restrictions on travel spending and took aim at some non-essential services, such as county TV, the Shadow Mountain Clubhouse, the Luttrell Barn and the county museum.
The commission seemed to be on the right track, owning up to their responsibility as elected officials to act in the best interests of the county. But as quickly as they took a stand, the commission's resolve cracked when people started complaining about how the budget cuts would affect them.
Road and Bridge Department workers were first. The commission rescinded a cut for sick leave after they complained. Next came the folks who use Shadow Mountain Clubhouse and the Luttrell Barn. The commission is asking other boards to help them keep the pool at Shadow Mountain open for the people who use it. The county adopted a higher use fee to make the Luttrell Barn pay for itself.
Under other circumstances, we might applaud the commission for being caring and responsive to their constituents. But not this year. If every penny truly counts, then the county is on the hook for thousands of dollars trying to keep these programs going. What if no one wants to pay $125 a day to rent the Luttrell Barn? Then the county stands to lose $1,300 in 2004.
What's worse is that the commission has sent a clear message to everyone in the county: If you complain loud and long enough, you just might get your way. Jeff Comstock is ready to petition the commission about restoring one of the positions that was cut in the Natural Resources Department -- a department that the county isn't even required to fund.
How many hours have commissioners spent debating the issues and arriving at informed, calculated decisions, only to reverse themselves because they don't want to be the bad guys? This can't possibly an efficient use of the commission's time.
We can only hope that the commissioners know something we don't -- that the March reconciliation will reveal a bigger-than-anticipated carryover into 2004. But if the commission starts making excuses about declining revenues, unfair assessments and tax abatements for their fiscal problems in 2004, we won't lend a sympathetic ear. They had their chance to draw a line in the stand and demonstrate true leadership.
The commission should heed the words of their own Human Resources Director Lynette Running.
"If you're going to try to save money, you need to make these cuts and not back out if it upsets people."