Larimer County Manager Linda Hoffmann released her first proposed budget on Oct. 12. At nearly $222.5 million, the net operating budget for 2013 represents a 1.2 percent decrease from the adopted 2012 budget. It spends about $3 million less than the county expects to collect in general fund revenues for the year.

The reductions are the first step on a three-year “glide path” to progressively reduce general fund allocations ahead of a revenue shortfall of between $8 million and $10 million by 2015. The existing 0.2 percent sales tax dedicated to operational expenses and debt service at the county jail expires at the end of 2014. Voters rejected a proposal to extend the tax in November 2011.

“These changes will be more successfully managed if they are phased in rather than occurring abruptly at the beginning of 2015,” Hoffmann wrote in her budget cover memo to the Board of County Commissioners. “Incremental savings in 2013 and 2014, when sales tax revenues are still available, will generate funds for one-time expenditures to realize long-term savings in the cost of providing services.”

The 2013 budget also proposes significant internal transfers and one-time capital expenditures that raise the overall proposed total budget to $319.25 million.

The major capital improvements include retiring debt for the construction of the Community Corrections facility early, which will save more than a quarter million dollars in interest, according to Hoffmann. The proceeds from lawsuits settled earlier this year are being used to reconstruct buildings at The Ranch, and some road and bridge projects that had been delayed in 2012 will be added to projects scheduled for completion in 2013.

The largest area of spending — $64.5 million — is for Public Safety, which includes operating the county jail and alternative sentencing department, the sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office, animal control and code compliance, and wildfire fighting.

The sheriff’s office accounts for 61.4 percent of the Public Safety budget; 53.4 percent of the general fund budget is allocated to Public Safety. The proposed budget actually increases the allocation for the sheriff’s department to $40.8 million to cover overtime expenses incurred during the High Park and Hewlett Gulch fires.

However, to meet its budget target, the sheriff’s office must find $1 million in savings during the year. The sheriff has spent $5 million less than was budgeted over the past three years, some from delaying special projects such as an upgraded computer system and some from staffing adjustments.

Hoffmann proposed retaining support for detox services contracted with North Range Behavioral Health — $47,534 — and mental health services through Touchstone Health Partners — $87,422. The commissioners had suggested these be cut, but in her presentation of the budget on Oct. 22, Hoffmann pointed out that without the contract services, the responsibility for transporting citizens to detox would fall on sheriff’s deputies. Additional funding for mental health services may be available under the Affordable Care Act in the future, so she recommended keeping that item in the 2013 budget.

Any unspent funds this year should be directed into reserve accounts for upcoming expenses by all departments, since once the sales tax expires, there will be little to no discretionary funds available until the economy recovers, she said. Even with belt-tightening and savings, additional revenues will be needed.

For example, landfill fees will need to be raised in 2014, Hoffmann wrote in the memo, if the Solid Waste Department is to continue to provide non-revenue-generating services such as transfer stations, recycling and household hazardous waste disposal. The department is also looking ahead to closing the existing landfill in about 15 years, at the end of its life, at a cost of about $4.8 million, and opening a new one for about $10 million.

Hoffmann strongly urged the commissioners to consider conducting a scientific survey in 2013 to gauge citizen reactions to the changes in services that budget reductions will bring. Such a survey could cost between $12,000 and $15,000, which could come out of carryover funds from the Communications Department.

The proposed budget is posted on the county’s website at larimer.org/budget/2013budget and is available at local public libraries. A public hearing will be held on the budget on Nov. 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the Commissioners’ Hearing Room at 200 W. Oak St., Fort Collins. It will be broadcast on cable channels 14 in Fort Collins and 16 in LaPorte and Wellington, as well as streamed on the Internet at larimer.org/bcc/broadcast.cfm.

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