Moffat County identifies more 2018 budget cuts, faces backlash over transparency concerns | CraigDailyPress.com

Moffat County identifies more 2018 budget cuts, faces backlash over transparency concerns

Lauren Blair and Sasha Nelson

CRAIG — A long and wearying budget season came to a close for Moffat County officials on Tuesday with passage of the final 2018 budget.

The budget was met with concern and consternation by several attendees at Tuesday's meeting of the Moffat County Board of County Commissioners, mostly regarding transparency. Some felt there wasn't ample opportunity to review additional cuts and adjustments — totaling $400,000 — that were made since the preliminary budget was presented in October. All told, the county cut $1.7 million from general fund expenditures in 2018.

Commissioners approved the final budget, nonetheless, stating later in a news release that they followed statutory requirements to provide public notice.

Though county officials did manage to avoid major layoffs, the cuts do impact some personnel, while most departments are already feeling squeezed by staff reductions through attrition and hiring freezes during the past year.

Following are some of the additional cuts made since October, according to Moffat County Finance Director Mindy Curtis.

• Two part-time positions were cut from the Moffat County Clerk & Recorder's office, however Clerk and Recorder Lila Herod was able to identify close to $87,000 in restricted funds to keep the positions for the next year.

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• The county attorney's budget for consultant fees was reduced by $65,000, leaving a remaining budget of $25,000.

• A position in the treasurer's department was reduced to halftime effective Jan. 1 and will be fully eliminated July 1, resulting in a $36,500 reduction.

• A vacant sheriff's deputy position in Dinosaur was eliminated after the town of Dinosaur hired its own marshal.

• A finance department position was restructured so the employee will remain halftime in finance and work halftime in a different job in the Department of Human Services, resulting in $37,000 in savings.

• The county reduced its cleaning contract to capture $16,800 in savings, meaning some departments will have to do some of their own cleaning.

• The county reduced its reserves by $25,000.

• The county identified $75,000 under the line item "professional services — other" that weren't needed. The fund provides matching funds for grant opportunities.

Other items notably missing from the 2018 budget are funding for Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership and the Moffat County Visitor Center, which caught Chamber Executive Director Christina Oxley by surprise Tuesday.

"I do not feel this reflects the philosophy that this is all about the economy," Oxley told commissioners. "The Chamber had no idea that you were cutting the visitor center. I just don't feel that this was transparent."

Commissioner Frank Moe answered that funding for the two entities, though reduced from previous years, may come from a newly formed county development fund, which has yet to be allocated.

Herod, an elected official, also expressed frustration that the budget process appeared to lack transparency and said she was directed only two weeks ago to make an additional $85,000 in cuts to her department.

"They (county commissioners) have a really difficult job to do, and I sympathize with that, but they knew that in August, so to drag it out until the last minute and not share their conclusions with anyone — not elected officials, not department heads, not the public. … They were elected to do a hard job, and they were also elected to be transparent," Herod said.

Commissioner Don Cook disagreed that the process lacked transparency, however, and noted that commissioners had held at least 35 budget-related workshops and meetings since August.

"We actually have documented meetings with (department heads and elected officials), and the numbers were given very, very early," Cook said. "What we asked for today, there was not much difference from what we did in the very beginning."

The final painstaking round of cuts for 2018 sought to make existing county services as lean as possible, and the next round could mean changes to county services. Despite significant cuts in both 2017 and 2018, commissioners are still facing another $800,000 in reductions to meet their target in 2019.

"We're not cutting any services directly right now," Curtis said. "One of the things about the 2018 budget is it really is trying to get the truest picture we can get for Moffat County. We've really pressed for every revenue line, reduced every expenditure to what we think it can be, and that's where a lot of our savings are. It will be through the next phases of Priority Based Budgeting that we'll start diving more into services and how we can do them differently."

Cook and his fellow commissioners insisted that, however painful, making cuts now are critical to Moffat County's future success.

"The county commissioners refuse to kick the can down the road," they said in a news release, stating the strategy aims to "help Moffat County through their economic decline. … Some do not agree with the decisions and actions that are being taken. Failing to make hard decisions now could put the services the county provides for the citizens of Moffat County in jeopardy."

Has the budget process violated statute?

By Sasha Nelson

CRAIG — The process used by the Moffat County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday had many in the audience asking questions about the legality and adequacy of public notice and opportunity for a public hearing provided by the commissioners.

“I’m concerned that the public has not had adequate time to come to you with feedback on the budget,” said Craig Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Christina Oxley during the first of several opportunities for public comment provided by Chairman Frank Moe and the commissioners at the meeting.

Members of the public asked three key questions about the budget process. They are as follows.

Was a public hearing properly noticed, and held to consider the adoption of the proposed budget pursuant to Colorado Revised Statutes and C.R.S. 29-1-106 and C.R.S. 29-1-108?

C.R.S. 29-1-106 states, in part, “upon receipt of the proposed budget, the governing body shall cause to be published a notice containing the following information:
a) The date and time of the hearing at which the adoption of the proposed budget will be considered;
b) A statement that the proposed budget is available for inspection by the public at a designated public office located within the boundaries of the local government…
c) A statement that any interested elector of the local government may file any objections to the proposed budget at any time prior to the final adoption of the budget by the governing body.”

Despite claims that the Craig Press failed to publish the county’s paid legal notice, “Notice of Budget” from the county appeared on the top of page 36 of the Friday, Dec. 8, edition of the Craig Press. A notice was also published on page 27 of the Craig Press on Friday, Oct. 6.

The date and time of the commissioner’s regular meeting were provided, but the word “hearing” does not appear in either notice.

C.R.S. 29-1-108 states, in part,“ the governing body of the local government shall hold a hearing to consider the adoption of the proposed budget, at which time objections of the electors of the local government shall be considered.”

“Public Comment” was part of the agenda for both meetings at which county commissioners considered the budget, but the word “hearing,” was not also listed as part of the agenda for the Dec. 12 commissioners meeting.

“It should have been made clear that the public could have provided their opinions on the proposed budget,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

Was a copy of the budget made available to the public for review pursuant to Colorado Revised Statutes C.R.S. 29-1-108?

On this point, there seemed to be confusion around the word “proposed.”

A preliminary budget was presented and approved by commissioners Oct. 10, and that budget was made open to public inspection at the Finance Department within the Moffat County Courthouse. However, changes made to the budget since October may not have been readily available for public review.

Lila Herod, speaking in her role as a member of the library board, said that board had not been provided notice of an additional $100,000 reduction to the library budget. She also said department heads were not made aware of final changes to the county budget revealed Tuesday.

“It seems like they must make public the budget they intend to vote on,” Roberts said.

Oxley was able to review final changes to the proposed budget at 8 a.m. Tuesday, about 30 minutes prior to the beginning of the commissioners meeting.

Was that sufficient? The statute does not make specific mention of the length of time a county government should give citizens to review the budget it intends to approve, but Commissioner Don Cook said they’ve held at least 35 workshops and meetings since July.

“(We had) meetings with department heads, elected officials, finance staff, with whomever was concerned with the budget … they were all open to the public, all posted,” Cook said.

Was a searchable copy of the budget provided for review upon request under Colorado Open Records Act revised by Senate Bill 17-040?

Revisions to the Colorado Open Records Act stipulate that “if the record is kept in a spreadsheet it must be provided that way, but it must be formally requested under CORA.

“You could argue that those records are readily available and should be provided when requested in electronic or searchable format when requested,” Roberts said.

Citizens will decide if Moffat County commissioners followed the letter and spirit of the law, but at least one expert sees room for improvement.

“It seems like there is a lot of room for improvement on public notice and transparency,” Roberts said.