Slash and crash 

County budget cuts could endanger social services

The massive budget cuts that El Paso County officials have anticipated for years are finally a reality. And while the county's social services department scrambles to maintain food stamp and child welfare programs at current levels, the poor face what could be an even heavier burden.

"Did we cut [the budget for] Human Services? Sure," says County Commissioner Wayne Williams.

The department was one of a handful that sustained major cuts to balance the $7.2 million shortfall in the 2007 budget, which was approved by the commissioners at last Thursday's board meeting.

Since Human Services relies heavily on matching grant money from state and federal resources, the $164,050 budget cut could actually mean a total deficit of around $820,000 for the department.

"We serve so many families," says department director Barbara Drake. "We have made a commitment not to make any reductions."

The department provides economic assistance and childcare, as well as many other services, to approximately 55,000 people in the county every year. While Drake is not sure what she'll have to slash, she says she will first freeze hires at the administrative level.

"I think it is an important thing to convey that the commissioners made a conscious decision not to make it a cut that would be devastating to us," she says. "They were concerned about our department, and they knew we are a real safety net for the community."

But in a chapter of the adopted budget, Drake admits to fears that the cuts could impede her department's ability to provide "timely processed benefits" for El Paso County's skyrocketing population.

"... caseloads become too high when staffing cannot be maintained at authorized levels," she writes.

The county has also cut services like the Sheriff's Work Release Program, which allowed county inmates to stay employed as they served jail sentences. Another $350,000 will be deleted from the county's major maintenance projects, like roof replacement.

"This one-time solution of "Don't replace everything this year' works for a little bit," says Williams. "In my family, if we don't have enough money, we delay buying a new car, and that works for a year. But at some point, you have to buy a new one."

The budget shortfall can be attributed to an ever-dropping mill levy in El Paso County, aggravated in part by TABOR restrictions and unfunded state mandates. Years ago, says County Commissioner Board Chair Sallie Clark, taxpayers were charged 11 mills to fund county services. The 2007 rate of 7.71 mills is the second-lowest levy in more than two decades.

"We are very lean in terms of our budget, and while that is a good thing, there comes a point when you are not cutting from the fat, you are cutting from the bone," says Clark.

She adds that county employees have endured two wage freezes over the past three years, earning 8 percent less than their counterparts in similar-sized counties.

"You have to wonder how that is going to affect your turnover," Clark says. "We have lost some employees and, yes, some have looked for other jobs.

"We are at a critical breaking point."

County budget cuts of note

Salary increase for all county workers: $1.8 million

Sheriff's Work Release Program: $1 million

Eliminates a program allowing non-violent offenders to maintain employment as they serve jail sentences.

Sheriff's Office holiday/overtime pay: $600,000

Cleaning: $400,000

Major maintenance: $350,000

Travel/training: $320,140

PC/printer/software replacement: $218,750

Building abatement: $200,000

Reduces dollars that go toward addressing asbestos and other environmental problems.

1/2 percent "across the board": $166,599

Cuts funding from departments and offices that do not already have a budget reduction.

Department of Human Services budget: $164,050

Compiled by Naomi Zeveloff


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