Bad to worse 

El Paso County grapples with cuts yet again

El Paso County's tight budget is under incredible strain, and programs and services will be cut in 2008 a trend that has been ongoing for at least seven years.

That's according to County Administrator Jeff Greene, who says county government is shrinking as the county's population continues its rapid growth.

"This is probably the most difficult budget this Board of Commissioners has gone through," he says.

In all, the county faces an $8.5 million shortfall.

Last week, four of the five commissioners began to pit difficult choices against each other. So far this year, the process has favored preserving existing jobs and keeping critical services going.

"We have to put public safety on the very top of the pyramid," Commissioner Jim Bensberg said at a commissioners' meeting where Sheriff Terry Maketa warned that crime such as vandalism, even burglary, is increasingly difficult for deputies to keep up with.

"We are on defense all the time," Maketa said.

Commissioners are reviewing "mandates" and have backed paying for additional patrol deputies, as well as covering more benefits costs for employees.

Almost certainly in jeopardy are funds that help maintain parks, preserve the environment, keep courthouse lines moving, train employees, replace aging equipment and assist the poor.

While the county's overall budget will be roughly $246 million, the cuts come from a pool of about $105 million. The county can't touch the rest, says Greene, because the money largely comes from federal or state sources and is dedicated to specified purposes.

A preliminary budget should be solidified at a June 25 meeting.

Already, department heads like Tim Wolken of parks and recreation see a rough road. Two unfilled parks positions will be frozen at a time when "our staff has been stretched thin," Wolken said, adding that maintenance will suffer.

Parks in Widefield and Stratmoor Hills could close in an effort to reduce $220,000 from Wolken's department.

The county transportation department is trimming $624,000 from its budget and proposing to stop placing new gravel to make roads easier to drive.

Environmental services could halt its plan to create a regional habitat for the threatened Preble's meadow jumping mouse. Many builders and officials like the plan because it aims to reduce red tape that slows construction and road projects while carving out a place for the mice, Greene said.

"We now will have to work around the dormant periods of the mouse so we don't disturb it," Greene said.

The county also will quit its noxious-weeds fight, which Greene fears will open the county to litigation from farmers.

The county's membership in the National Association of Counties will likely end because dues won't be paid in 2008, despite an impassioned plea by Commissioner Sallie Clark to keep the lobbying ties in Washington, D.C. Also at risk are membership dues for various chambers of commerce.

The list goes on.

Greene says the budget difficulties emanate from the county's comparatively low collections a result of a 7.81 mill levy and unfunded state and federal requirements alongside laws like the growth-limiting Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which was written by vacationing Commissioner Douglas Bruce.

Many Colorado counties have removed TABOR restrictions and have mill levies that are two, even three, times higher than El Paso County's, Greene said.

Beyond cuts already proposed, Greene said, commissioners still must cut about $2 million.

John Newsome, the county's district attorney, this week is expected to address previously unexpected expenses surrounding the impending arrival of new judges. deyoanna@csindy.com

Budget trouble

Facing an $8.5 million shortfall next year, county commissioners have begun talking budget cuts. On the block:

Transportation department: $624,000

Would stop re-graveling roads.

Security: $190,000

Would freeze hires of four security officers, risking longer lines and delayed hearings at the courthouse.

Information technology: $920,778

Could mean a "catastrophic failure" of network/phones.

Human services: $217,000

Would prevent the city from matching state and federal funds. This could result in a loss actually three to four times the $217,000 figure.

Facilities management: $693,700

Would prevent making roof repair to county jail in 2008.

Source: El Paso County


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