Eat your broccoli …
The Crested Butte Town Council got a message of reality at its first budget meeting of the fall. The message was that there simply isn’t the money in the town coffers that there used to be. The council took a first look at the general capital budget on Thursday, September 6 and was told by town staff that just maintaining what the town already has will mean dipping significantly into the fund balance.
“We’ve never done a work session on the budget like this,” explained Lois Rozman, town finance director, to the council. “You said you wanted to be more involved, earlier in the budget. So here is a look at what is on the table already in the five-year capital plan.”
Rozman presented the council members with a spreadsheet showing the desires of the staff in the capital budget, including purchasing a new printer, building infrastructure on a town-owned block, putting solar panels on the Tommy V. field bathroom, rebuilding tennis courts and buying heavy equipment, vehicles and new holiday decorations for Elk Avenue.
Two major projects dominate the 2013 budget, in the renovation of the Depot building and the construction of the Verzuh Recreation Path extension. Both of those projects come with significant grants.
Most of the money generated for the capital budget comes from the real estate transfer tax, which generates approximately $450,000 a year. Use tax, grants, severance taxes and fees all contribute to revenues to the capital budget as well. But the staff said about $500,000 is spent for ongoing maintenance.
“It is a tight budget and we have a lot of deferred maintenance,” said Town Manager Susan Parker.
Councilperson Jim Schmidt pointed out that if everything proposed on the five-year spreadsheet were funded, the town capital budget would go from having a $1.9 million surplus to being in the hole about $1.2 million.
“The bottom line is that we are having trouble maintaining what we have,” said Parker. “Before starting any new projects we need to figure out how to fund existing projects.
“It’s not painting a totally bleak picture,” continued Parker. “It’s easy to get grants and find funding to acquire things or build new buildings.”
“But it is a lot harder to find money to pay for the ongoing costs,” Parker said.
“So the staff is looking for guidance on the priorities on this list or other projects you might want like a campground or more green initiatives,” said Rozman.
Councilperson Glenn Michel wasn’t optimistic about taking on new council priorities. “We are hearing clearly from the staff that the recession hit our funds and revenues pretty hard and so we have a lot of deferred maintenance going on,” he said. “The staff is recommending using any new money coming into the town as the recession recovers to catch up with maintenance. You are advising us to stay conservative.”
“That is true but we like to leave some flexibility with the funds so if we, say, need some matching grant dollars for opportunities that might come up, we have them,” said Parker.
“Unless we find a few million more dollars, we’ll end up having to defer even some of the things already on this five-year plan,” said Mayor Aaron Huckstep.
Parker explained that staff negotiates amongst itself every budget season for the priorities of each department. “We as professionals want to come up with a balanced budget,” she said. “That takes a lot of negotiating and it frankly can be brutal. It’s a battle for money.”
“The bottom line is we argue until Susan tells us no,” said Rodney Due, Crested Butte public works director.
“Given the financial realities, it hasn’t been pleasant the last few years,” agreed Parker.
“There is a lot of broccoli in this five-year plan,” added Bob Gillie, Crested Butte Building and Zoning director. “But we like cheesecake. And the council really likes cheesecake. But the reality is we have to eat our broccoli.”
The council asked about some low-budget items like $12,000 in Elk Avenue holiday decorations, a $9,000 high-resolution aerial photo and some $15,000 in cemetery maintenance.
“Lois, you are saying we shouldn’t create projects we can’t sustain,” said Michel. “We up here want more trails. Should I gather from this that we shouldn’t try to acquire more trails?”
“That is something you should consider,” Rozman responded.
As the current spreadsheet stood, the town would have to dip into reserves to the tune of more than $500,000 to balance the 2013 budget. Rozman said she was comfortable with drawing down the fund by no more than $150,000.
“Sounds like another bloodbath discussion between the staff,” quipped John Hess, town planner.
“The town has had a conservative ‘pay-as-you-go’ policy and that has set us up pretty well in some respects,” said Parker. “The town wouldn’t buy or build something until it had the money. There isn’t much long-term debt. But I’d like to include the costs of long-term funding when looking at new projects.”
Michel mentioned it might be time to consider how to come up with a “sustainable source of revenue” to help pay for park costs that take up much of the capital budget. “It is something we may have to ask the constituents to deal with in the future,” he said.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” noted Jake Jones, parks and recreation director. “We don’t know the answers but it makes a lot of sense to start having that discussion in the future.”
“The only real solution would be a mill levy to help pay for the parks,” added Schmidt. “The question is should it be a levy just in town or should a broader parks district be formed since everyone at this end of the valley uses the park facilities.”
That is a question the council appeared likely to ask sometime before next November, when it could go to the voters. In the meantime, the council found the discussion “enlightening” and “helpful in the big picture.” They didn’t add any new projects to the five-year capital plan.