In troubled water 

County looks at costs of budget cuts

Decaying Golden Lane bridge wont be replaced unless - county can pay its 20 percent of the tab. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Decaying Golden Lane bridge wont be replaced unless county can pay its 20 percent of the tab.

Apart from a weight limit sign, there are few hints the Golden Lane bridge is among the worst in El Paso County. It's a short, narrow stretch of pockmarked pavement near 31st Street and north of U.S. Highway 24. It crosses Fountain Creek to a tiny enclave of county land in western Colorado Springs.

Just by looking, it's tough to tell that a severe flood or an oversized truck could bring its demise.

The bright side is that this bridge and another out east are so bad that the state has agreed to pay 80 percent of the cost to replace them. For Golden Lane, that means a new $600,000 bridge could cost about $120,000.

The darker reality is that matching funds still require something from local government. As county leaders look at how to trim nearly $9 million more from a 2008 budget that's already seen serious pruning, department managers are looking at possibly having to say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Transportation director John McCarty says his department is stretched keeping roads plowed and maintained; there is little extra to fund bridge projects even when matching funds must be used in three or four years.

"If we put it off too long, we could lose the money," he says.

The projected shortfall has numerous sources. First are economic factors: Fewer people are buying houses, so recording fees collected at the clerk's office are down nearly 17 percent. And since people are generally buying less stuff, sales-tax collections are more than 1 percent below projections.

Rising gas prices are taking a toll, and the county has been seeing a string of large medical claims from employees and families. Since the county is self-insured, medical claims directly impact the budget. (County officials say they still save millions by being self-insured instead of paying for private health insurance.)

The net result is a projected $8.8 million shortfall that has raised the specter of commissioners selling county park lands to make ends meet.

Dozens show up at a special budget session Tuesday to speak against the park-sale idea, and the commissioners seem to agree: Selling that land is a last resort most hope to avoid.

Other options also appear dismal. Several judges speak against cutting the department that supervises suspected criminals released from jail on recognizance bonds.

Commissioners plan to start deciding cuts after their regular meeting Thursday. Other options include taking loans against the value of county-owned buildings, shifting funds and reserves or even making cuts to the Department of Human Services, which could mean forfeiting tens of millions in federal and state funding (and breaking the law, likely pushing this idea from the table).

Families involved in 4-H through Colorado State University Extension showed up in droves to save their program last fall when it went on the chopping block. They succeeded, to an extent; county funding was halved so the program could still operate with federal and state funds.

The 4-H presence Tuesday is smaller, though no less passionate, as commissioners look at cutting the program's last $73,000.

Joel Plath, CSU Extension's southern regional director, sits quietly in the audience. In his region, Plath says, Lake County (Leadville) is the only one with no extension office. El Paso County's office will close without county involvement, he says.

Earlier, he spoke sadly about the effects of ending gardening programs for adults and 4-H programs in which kids also learn about leadership, public speaking and "life-long skills."

Said Plath, "I would argue we need a lot more of that."



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