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Not horsing around: County halves 4-H budget 

County approves wide-ranging slashes

click to enlarge Katie (left) and Kellie Ashby have risen from their 4-H - roots to win world-level honors. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Katie (left) and Kellie Ashby have risen from their 4-H roots to win world-level honors.

Though Kellie and Katie Ashby live in Colorado Springs and attend Wasson High School, you wouldn't call them citified.

Tuesday morning, with the sun just hitting the summit of Pikes Peak, the twin sisters casually climbed to the bare backs of their horses outside a barn east of the Springs.

Their love for the animals has taken both girls far. Among other achievements, both 15-year-olds made the El Paso County junior horse-judging team that won the 2006 World Championship Paint Horse title.

Their rides Tuesday could be judged celebratory or solemn, depending on perspective. A day earlier, they joined dozens of other children, teenagers and parents in pleading to county leaders not to eliminate spending on the local extension office, which oversees the 4-H youth development program and numerous other programs.

The county commissioners heard that plea, choosing to continue a decades-old partnership with the state by budgeting $149,000 for the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

Gary Hall, the extension office's county director, told commissioners that giving the office nothing, as proposed during discussions the previous week, would likely spell the end for 4-H, master gardening and other programs.

"You're basically destroying the extension office," Hall explained.

Later in their Monday meeting, commissioners added back half the funding for the extension office before eking out final savings to reach a goal of nearly $11 million.

The breathing room for 4-H came in part from a bit of optimistic hand-waving. Sales-tax revenue fills more than 60 percent of the county's general fund, but collections have been sluggish in 2007, prompting last-minute cuts to make this year's numbers balance.

For 2008, county finance officials first projected a historically modest 2.34 percent increase in sales-tax collections. They later revised that figure to 0.75 percent, in recognition that the economy has turned sluggish. On Monday, commissioners agreed to hope those collections increase 1 percent, giving them $180,000 more to play with.

If the economy fares worse than expected in coming months, commissioners will likely face yet another round of budget cuts in 2008.

A sales-tax shortfall is only part of the reason for slashing the 2008 budget. Commissioners want $1 million to replenish nonexistent reserves, and they face millions of required extra spending to provide staff for new judges, pay for elections and cover other expenses.

Round one of budget-cutting came in July, when commissioners carved out $6.4 million from spending.

The last $4.5 million came during the past two weeks, as commissioners agreed to have most county employees work four 10-hour days a week next year to yield utilities savings from closed buildings. They also voted to refinance some county debt and cut funding for a detox program, among other steps before the final budget vote on Dec. 10.

Nearly two dozen 4-H supporters spoke for their program Monday, finding mostly sympathetic ears except for Commissioner Douglas Bruce, who chided parents for letting their kids miss school for a board meeting.

Crying slightly, Kris Alcorn addressed the board after her twin daughters spoke, mentioning their accomplishments and the value of a program she hopes will be around for her youngest child, who is now 2.

"I can't believe this might not be there for her," she said.

lane@csindy.com

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