Defunded: Moffat County’s 2019 budget draft eliminates museum funding, slashes library allocation | CraigDailyPress.com

Defunded: Moffat County’s 2019 budget draft eliminates museum funding, slashes library allocation

Jim Patterson and Sasha Nelson/Craig Press

CRAIG — A draft of Moffat County's 2019 budget eliminates funding for the Museum of Northwest Colorado and slashes the allotment for Moffat County Libraries by 77 percent — from about $475,000 in operating funds in 2018 to $113,901 for the coming year.

The draft budget will be discussed during a public hearing set for 2 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15 at the Moffat County Courthouse, 221 W. Victory Way.

Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck stressed the draft will undergo revisions — partly based on public comment received during the Oct. 15 hearing — before its statutorily mandated final adoption two months later, on Dec. 15.

But even considering potential adjustments, the 2019 outlook remains bleak for both the library and the museum.

"They're looking at significant cuts that will impact their budgets going forward," Beck said. "At this point, core functions and services will be significantly impacted."

Beck's remarks add considerable weight to what some have already speculated: The fate of both the library and the museum now rests firmly upon voters' decision on Ballot Issue 1A, which proposes the establishment of a 2.85 percent mill levy dedicated solely to fund the library and the museum.

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If approved, the levy would raise about $1.1 million per year, and by the language of the measure, this money could be used only for the library and the museum and would not pass through the county's general coffers. It would be disbursed to the two entities according to a 64-36 ratio, with the library receiving about $700,000 annually and the museum about $400,000.

It would cost residential property owners about $1.71 per month — or $20.50 per year — and business owners about $6.89 per month — or $82.65 per year — on every $100,000 in assessed value.

During a Monday interview, all three county commissioners, joined by Moffat County Finance Director Mindy Curtis, discussed the difficult budgeting decisions commissioners have faced due to declining county revenues, again stressing their commitment to "priority-based budgeting," a process that has allowed them to make $10.7 million in reductions in the past three years.

They stressed their continued commitment to the often-painful process of analyzing county expenditures and making priority-based cuts whenever and wherever they are necessary and appropriate.

"We support the library and the museum, but we have to budget for the economy we're in," Beck said.

He added that, while commissioners deem both the library and the museum invaluable community assets, they remain "lower priorities" in the county's financial hierarchy.

"Public safety is our No. 1 concern," Commissioner Don Cook said. "Police, road and bridge, human services; those things have to come first."

Beck said the deep cuts to the library and the museum as outlined in the draft budget should not be seen as "scare tactics."

They are reality.

"This is not an exercise," Beck said. "We're not testing the waters here."

Beck said commissioners will do what is best for the county's overall financial health, regardless of the outcome of 1A.

"We're going to balance the budget based on what we know now," Cook agreed.

Services in jeopardy

Moffat County Libraries fared better than the Museum of Northwest Colorado in the 2019 budget, at least in part because of Colorado law.

"We're not statutorily required to have a museum," Beck said.

Such is not the case for a public library.

CRS 24-90-103(13)9a) defines public libraries in Colorado, outlining the legal responsibilities of such entities, as well as the access and services they must provide.

According to the statute, a public library must be "open to the public a minimum number of hours per week in accordance with rules established by the state library." Under the guidelines set forth by the Colorado State Library Board, this means a public library must "be open a minimum of 20 hours each week. These hours should include morning, afternoon, evening, and/or weekend hours based on users’ and potential users’ disposable time."

Moreover, "All service outlets of libraries providing multiple access points must be open to the public for no fewer than 20 hours a week," according to the guidelines.

So the only way the county could defund the library entirely is to abolish it, but this would require a vote of the people.

Under a different section of the same statute: "A public library, other than a joint library, established, operated, or maintained pursuant to this part may be abolished only by vote of the registered electors in that library’s legal service area."

That was the premise under which commissioners were operating when they decided on the 77-percent cut to the library's budget, only at the time, they were not yet certain if that meant 20 hours per week for the Craig branch or 20 hours per week for all branches.

The statutory language seems to lay that question to rest.

But the language is probably irrelevant. According to Moffat County Libraries Director Sherry Sampson, $113,000 annually might not be enough to keep the Craig branch open the required 20 hours per week, let alone the Maybell and Dinosaur branches.

"If that is the amount given, then I do not believe we can stay open for 20 hours a week at Craig, much less at the other branches," Sampson said.

She added that cutting hours will not cut costs.

"If we cut back to 20 hours, it's not about that," she said. "It will mean we'd have to increase our staffing, because all those people who use the services would simply come in during the 20 hours instead of the 48 hours. It won't reduce the workload. It will actually increase it and won't allow me to cut staffing, which I think would be the aim of a cut in hours."

Sampson said she plans to speak during the Oct. 15 budget hearing.

Jennifer Riley, who sits on the Moffat County Libraries Board of Trustees, said retaining a robust public library is essential to the health of a community.

"I think it is really important that a community has a library and that it is not a service paid for other than by property taxes," she said. "Most small towns have a library. Encampment, Wyoming has a library."

She added that passage of the mill levy would give certainty to the service and remove decision-making from elected officials who may or may not be knowledgeable and passionate about the library and museum.

"I would like to see this mill levy pass," Riley said. "It will ensure that it is out of their hands and out of the control of anyone not on the boards of the two entities."

She also voiced concern for the libraries' smaller branches in Maybell and Dinosaur, where most, if not all, rely upon the library for internet access and, in some cases, cell phone reception.

"At what point do the commissioners have to consider public good as well as public safety?" she wondered. "What are they going to do in Dinosaur and Maybell?"

Maybell resident April McIntyre underscored the importance of the library to her tiny, western-Moffat County town.

"In addition to grabbing reading and research material, this is where residents and travelers come to use a computer, hop on the internet, make copies, or send a fax," she said. "Our library is a technological hub for many of our residents. It's a meeting hall, when necessary, and sometimes it's a study hall. It's where residents rent movies and search town history. It's where school kids come and partake in story time and awesome reading programs. With our lack of cell phone service, this is where people traveling through go to contact the outside world. I honestly can't say enough good things about our library or our librarian and the services they provide to the community in Maybell, Sunbeam, and Browns Park."

If the Maybell branch were to close, she said, "our communities would lose access to all of the previously mentioned resources, with no way to replace these services."

'This is for real'

The museum's situation is both simpler and starker. As Beck noted, the county is not statutorily required to have a museum, and the 2019 budget reflects this.

The museum is not funded, nor is it likely that it will be, and according to Assistant Director Paul Knowles, that means without the mill levy, the museum is finished.

"If this fails, we're done," he said during a Coffee & a Newspaper event Oct. 3.

In fact, according to both Knowles and Director Dan Davidson, the museum has, since 2008, been supplementing its operating expenses by drawing on reserves it amassed from lease royalties during more prosperous times.

And with each passing year, it has been forced to deepen that draw.

"The museum has not used taxpayer dollars for any renovation, upkeep, equipment, or part-time employees for the past three years," Davidson said.

Now, with the lease royalties having gone dry, and its reserves nearly depleted, the museum has enough funding to perhaps stay open another year.

After that, it will have to close its doors.

It has been suggested that the museum might stay afloat by charging an admission fee, but both Knowles and Davidson said that has already been tried and was a dismal failure.

"Attendance dropped 50 percent almost overnight," Knowles said.

Davidson added that the museum collects more through its donation box and gift shop purchases than it could realize through charging an admission fee and cutting attendance.

"With donations and gift shop purchases, we collect, on average, about $4 from every man, woman, and child who walks through our doors," he said.

Both agreed the future of the museum rests on the ballot issue.

"The commissioners have cut all the fat," Knowles said. "We're down to muscle now. This is for real."

Commission position

County commissioners have taken no official position on Ballot Issue 1A, but in a joint letter mailed to Moffat County voters last week, they stressed the mill levy was conceived by a Community Task Force, not commissioners.

In a letter mailed this week to residents, they reiterated that their primary concern is to ensure the longterm financial health of the county and outlined the efforts they have undertaken so far to balance the county's budget beneath the shadow of diminishing revenue.

"In 2018, in a continuing effort to face our declining revenues and avoid deficit spending, the commissioners reduced the county budget by roughly $1.7 million across 33 departments, while also reducing staff by 10 positions," they wrote in the letter. "This comes after reducing expenses by $3.5 million in 2017 and $5.5 million in 2016, totaling $10.7 million in reductions over the past three years. To be clear, these are some of the largest reductions in Moffat County's history."

They went on to explain the genesis of the November ballot issue.

"We believe that any proposition for a tax increase should only occur after all other options have been explored," they wrote. "Therefore, in early 2018 we formed a diverse citizen advisory group to share ideas and receive input about possible paths forward."

These efforts, commissioners added, led to the mill levy proposal.

"The advisory group focused on various 'non-core-function' department, including two that are currently in jeopardy due to the recent budget reductions — the Moffat County Library and the Museum of Northwest Colorado," they wrote. "After four meetings of sharing as much information as possible about our current finances and future projections, as well as a joint city/county meeting, a conclusion was reached by the advisory group that the Moffat County Libraries and the Museum of Northwest Colorado required stable funding in order to ensure their future.

"After weighing many different funding options, a mill levy dedicated strictly for the operation and maintenance of the museum and libraries was ultimately recommended by the advisory group and accepted by the Moffat County Board of Commissioners."

On Monday, Beck reiterated the position that Ballot Issue 1A originated with the county's citizenry.

"This was the work of the Community Task Force, not the commissioners," Beck said. "We're throwing out a lifeline to the community. The commissioners can't do it themselves. We're asking for help."

Contact Jim Patterson at 970-875-1790 or jpatterson@CraigDailyPress.com. Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.