There will be pain but there will still be flowers—for now
Whether the margin was two votes or 300 votes, the majority of the Crested Butte Town Council wants to proceed with the 2015 budget as if there is little chance of a new funding source getting approved by voters in the near future. The margin of voters turning down a proposed sales tax increase earmarked for parks and recreation at the November 4 election was indeed two votes.
The message the council and staff is hearing is to make some small but noticeable cuts in the town budget. The first focus will be on the summer Elk Avenue flower program. Expect fewer flowers being put out next summer and for a shorter period of time in an effort to cut about $30,000 out of the town’s capital budget.
Bike racks and benches will be put out later and taken in sooner. There will be fewer staff in the shoulder seasons so parks might not be as neat in spring and fall. Currently the summer season is treated as 26 weeks. The staff will calculate the reduced duration in order to attain the desired savings.
The town staff told the council at the November 10 budget work session that the rejection of the .5 percent sales tax increase proposal means that capital projects that were tentatively set to be funded over the next five years will now be herded into the “unfunded” category. Those include such things as ice rink refrigeration, the Avalanche campground development, maintenance of the skatepark, and the Eighth Street greenway.
“With the staff’s proposal, we significantly reduce the [capital fund] balance but maintain it above the $1,000,000 mark until 2019, where it dips below $1,000,000. The $1,000,000 is the minimum fund balance set in the town’s financial policy,” a staff memo to the council stated.
The staff said that the last five years has seen an emphasis on the town parks in the capital budget. So now the town has increased the building maintenance fund for the next two years to get caught up. A building maintenance position is also being incorporated into the budget to deal with town-owned buildings.
The staff has recommended a 24 percent reduction in seasonal park labor from the 2014 budget to start the needed cutting process. They proposed three options. The first would be to cut seasonal summer staff by two positions. That would save about $23,000 in labor. The second would be to eliminate the flower and garden program completely. That would cut about $30,000 in labor. The third option would be to reduce the length of the 26-week summer season for both programs. That option is still being vetted by the staff to figure out the best way to reduce costs but maintain a summer presence.
Councilman Jim Schmidt argued that there was a difference between two votes and 300 votes and that by going to the voters next November and doing a better job of explaining the situation would probably get the tax passed and solve the capital budget problem.
“This proposal cuts $30,000 from the budget. Even with cutting this we still have $1.4 million in reserves,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it and it’s not my responsibility to make people feel pain for not passing this sales tax. I would want to put the proposal on the ballot again next year and work hard to pass it. With that much money in the bank, I just don’t see the need to cut seasonal workers or the flowers on Elk Avenue. What good is having $1.4 million in the bank? I would rather see the town continue its high quality of service and if it doesn’t pass again, I would be willing to make more drastic cuts next year.”
“The council would be seeming to kick the can down the road,” said councilman Glenn Michel. “The staff is suggesting that by making little changes now we can avoid big changes all at once.’
“It is sort of like braking before you hit the icy patch instead of waiting to slam on the brakes when you are on the ice,” agreed town manager Todd Crossett.
Councilman Chris Ladoulis adamantly argued against eliminating the Elk Avenue flowers, which he sees as a great amenity to the growing summer tourist season.
“Why not mow the fields less?” he suggested.
Parks and Recreation director Janna Hansen explained that flowers would be easy to discontinue and reinstall later. Reducing maintenance however, could damage the fields. Mowing the fields less could require turf replacement in the future that would cost the town more in the long run. “None of the options are pretty,” Hansen admitted.
“The problem with eliminating the flowers is that they have become such a major part of the streetscape that generates the town sales tax,” said Michel. “That move could hurt the businesses that collect the sales tax. By taking away the flowers do we hurt ourselves?”
“Absolutely,” said Ladoulis. “Every summer photograph of Elk Avenue has the colorful summer flowers. We are the Wildflower Capitol of Colorado. I think we have to isolate the flowers. The unintended consequences would be to make the scenic Elk Avenue less scenic.”
Crossett said the issue came to head in large part because of maintenance needs of town-owned buildings. That maintenance had been deferred for years and cannot be put off much longer. “We could divest ourselves of the buildings but they house a lot of the community’s nonprofits,” he said.
“We didn’t communicate the message for the need,” said mayor Aaron Huckstep. “We should have reached out to some of the stakeholders impacted by this that could have carried the flag.”
“We’re saying we can’t maintain the stuff we have and we have to be clear we can’t take on new things,” said Ladoulis.
“I think with a two-vote margin the folks are saying we have enough money in the budget,” added Michel.
“Whether it’s two or 300, the people sent a message,” said Ladoulis.
“We got an answer and now we are trying to abide by that answer,” added Crossett. “When the skatepark is deemed unsafe, it will have to come offline, for example.”
Councilman Roland Mason took the hardest line, saying that it might be time to eliminate the flowers and the holiday lighting as well. “I think we need to maintain and focus on our infrastructure,” he said. “We can cut $50,000 out of the budget with these moves.”
“I really think the flowers are good amenity for our businesses,” countered Michel.
“But sales tax isn’t going to get us out of the situation,” Mason said. “The capital budget is different.”
The town’s capital budget is funded primarily through the real estate transfer tax.
“In my business three or four years ago in the recession I had to cut things and it has put us in a better position now,” said Mason.
“To me, getting rid of the flowers is like a hotel saving money by not replacing the light bulbs in its sign when they burn out,” said Ladoulis. “It is irrational. Sales tax is the core to our budget. To me, flower boxes are non-negotiable. You turn on the lights, you sweep the streets, you put out the flowers and welcome people to come and spend money downtown.”
The council discussed supplying the flower boxes and asking local businesses to “adopt” a flower box and take care of it.
Schmidt suggested looking elsewhere for savings, such as not purchasing the roller proposed in the budget or putting off the proposed upgrades to the town restrooms.
“You are asking to move a one-time expenditure but keep the reoccurring expenditure,” said town finance director Lois Rozman. “That’s what we’ve done for the last five years and now we’re in a pinch.”
“These cutting conversations have been very hard on the staff,” said Crossett. “The heart of the problem is that the town pursued its parks and rec master plan wants but not the need to fund the continuing costs.”
“And then I think we need to tell the voters a better story,” said Huckstep. “This is a real issue that means hard decisions.”
“Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish,” argued Schmidt. “What difference is having $1.409 million in the bank or $1.439 million? Sales tax is up 20 percent in September and we are allowed to take money from the general fund and use it over here in the capital fund.
“We owe it to the 390 people who voted for the increase,” he continued. “Whatever and Bud Light got in the way and there might have been two votes because of bad feelings against us.”
Moving money between funds “would be a poor precedent,” countered Huckstep.
Ladoulis suggested moving the flower program out of parks and rec and into a separate general fund line item. “I understand the need to feel some pain but I want to see the flowers at the same time.”
Ladoulis also asked the staff for a valuation provided to the local nonprofits through essentially subsidized rents in town buildings. “It might be worth putting a value on that so people understand that subsidy,” he said.
“It’s like affordable housing to non-profits and those organizations bring back benefits to the overall community but it is a real cost,” said Crossett.
The council reluctantly agreed to reduce the duration of summer season amenities in Crested Butte. They will have details of that cut before the Monday, November 17 council meeting.