Long a stronghold for Republican politicians, El Paso County government has finally witnessed all it can stand when it comes to slashing taxes.
That's the opinion of Sallie Clark, chairwoman of the five-member, all-Republican Board of County Commissioners.
"We're all fiscal conservatives, but there comes a breaking point at which we have to stop and look at what's going on," Clark says.
That point came earlier this month, when commissioners learned they'd have to make $6.5 million in cuts as yet undetermined to balance the county's 2007 budget.
With $115 million in general fund revenues, there isn't enough money to maintain the current level of services and programs, prompting officials to issue a list of items for the proverbial chopping block.
The list includes a $1 million rehabilitative program that allows county jail inmates to work in the community; hundreds of thousands of dollars in human services programs that aid the poor and sick; maintenance for county parks; and energy conservation efforts.
Election polling sites also might be eliminated, meaning that starting in 2007, voting could be conducted on a mail-only basis.
County employees could also be forced to take furloughs, or unpaid leave, at the same time their wages are frozen and job openings go unfilled.
"We hate these ideas," Clark says. "We're faced with tough decisions."
Thursday, county commissioners will meet and take comments from the public. They expect to finalize cuts sometime in October.
Commissioner Dennis Hisey hasn't yet decided what he'd cut, but he's reluctant to halt raises for county employees or to require furloughs.
"You hate to balance the budget on the backs of the people you depend on," he says. "We also don't want to lose talented people."
While the county has faced tight budgets before, Terry Harris, the county's top administrator, says this year represents a "crisis" in which county politicians can no longer afford to talk of cutting taxes.
"We have always prided ourselves on having the lowest tax rates in the state and one of the lowest in the nation," he said in a statement released earlier this month. "But if we don't figure out a way to significantly increase revenues, we face disastrous results."
The county collects $66 per capita in property taxes. That compares with $190 per capita in Pueblo County to the south and $328 per capita in Douglas County to the north.
El Paso County's mill levy is also comparatively small, at 7.673 mills. A mill, or tax, is equal to $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Pueblo County's mill levy is 39.959 and Douglas County's is 19.774.
To avert more cuts in the future, many county officials are backing a ballot proposal that would ask voters to raise taxes, says county spokesman Ron Kole. Yet nothing would happen until at least 2007 because the deadline to put a measure to voters this November has passed.
While specific language still is to be determined, Clark and Hisey generally support the idea of a ballot measure. Hisey adds, however, that the proposal would need to solve the county's budget woes well into the future.
"I wouldn't support it if in three years the county comes back and is crying the same blues," he says.
El Paso County Commissioners budget meeting
County Office Building, 27 E. Vermijo Ave.
Thursday, Sept. 21, 6 p.m.
For the meeting agenda, visit elpasoco.com.
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