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Commissioners weigh property-tax increase

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More revenue sought as county tries to balance 2014 budget

By Stephanie DeCamp

As Jeffco begins to finalize its budget for 2014, the county confronts the same dilemma it has faced for several years — how to do more with less.
Jeffco’s projected revenues for 2014 will not cover what the county is expecting to spend next year, so the county commissioners are considering reinstating part of the mill levy they reduced several years ago.
In the proposed budget, the county would bring back 1.5 mills of the 1.632-mill reduction, costing the owner of a $350,000 home a total of $720 annually, up from $678, and generating about $10.4 million in additional revenues.
Yet even with that additional revenue and a slight increase in property valuations, Jeffco would still need to dip into reserves to balance its 2014 spending plan. The draw-down would leave $47.7 million in reserve funds.
Since 2011, the county has seen its property-tax revenue decrease by $11.2 million.

The overall budget
The county’s proposed operational budget for 2014 is $349.7 million, a 1.5 percent increase over this year. That would include a 3 percent merit-pay increase for county employees.
Jeffco’s employees have essentially seen a reduction in pay since their last raise in 2009. While county employees’ wages have remained stagnant, employees' contribution to their benefits has increased steadily.
The stagnant pay has led to a sharp increase in turnover among county employees. Last year the county saw a turnover rate of 10.5 percent, and that number has increased so far this year.
In 2009, the county had averaged about a 7 percent turnover rate, so the commissioners want to ensure there is some form of pay raise in 2014.
The county also is proposing $41.8 million in capital projects, although $13.1 million of that would be part of a construction project at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport that is being reimbursed by grants.

Revenues
The county anticipates it will bring in $372.8 million in revenue in 2014, a 3 percent increase over projections for this year. Property taxes, if the 1.5-mill increase is approved by the commissioners, would generate an estimated $185.2 million.
While that is a 7.4 percent increase over this year’s estimated revenue, much of that boost would come from the reinstated mill levy, because overall valuation of property in the county is up only 1 percent.
All three county commissioners said they wouldn’t commit this early in the budget process to approving the mill-levy reinstatement but seemed open to the idea as a way to balance the budget.
“You never want to see the mill levy increased unless you really need it. Based upon the updated info, there is a need to look at adjusting the revenue,” Commissioner Casey Tighe said. “We’ve been dipping into the general-fund balance, and we can’t keep doing that. The voters authorized a certain mill levy for a certain level of services, so we need to make sure we’re maintaining that level of service.”
Tighe has commented before that the county should consider raising the mill to its approved level to help maintain services.
Commissioner Don Rosier was open to the suggestion, yet he was afraid that increasing the mill levy to meet the growing demand for county services would hurt the people it was intended to help.
“Do we raise taxes and penalize those who are least fortunate, who are barely getting by?” Rosier asked. “Yes, it would raise money, but just the 1.5 mills, it will only be about half the amount of funds that are necessary. It doesn’t solve the problem. We still have a problem funding what’s needed and necessary.”
Commissioner Faye Griffin said that even though the proposed tax increase sounds small, residents are still dealing with the effects of the recession and every dollar counts.
John Walsh, director of volunteer services for the Seniors' Resource Center, said he hoped the commissioners would reinstate the mill levy. The SRC, which helps provide services for Jeffco’s senior population, was one of three social-services nonprofits that saw their funding cut last year.
“It’s going to take all of that and more to meet the pent-up demand for services,” Walsh said. “Those funds can have a positive impact.”
Walsh cited citizen feedback during a recent discussion on the budget that shows there is a willingness to see a tax increase. During an Oct. 9 telephone town hall meeting, the commissioners polled citizens about their willingness to absorb a mill-levy increase to maintain or increase services.
Of the 419 people who responded to the survey, 28 percent said they would support an $50 increase in their property taxes to maintain the county's current level of service, 21 percent said they’d support a $20 increase and 31 percent said they wouldn't support any form of tax increase.
When the question came on whether there was support for increasing taxes to increase the level of county services, 30 percent of the 375 who responded said they’d support a $50 increase while 35 percent said they wouldn't support a tax increase.

Still in the red
Even with the mill-levy increase, the county will have to tap into its reserves for $18.6 million to balance the 2014 budget. While this represents a reduction of about 2 percent from this year, the county has used more than $71 million in reserve funds since 2011.
The proposed budget was presented to the Jeffco commissioners on Oct. 8 during their weekly staff briefing. The commissioners will meet with each department over the next several weeks as the budget is finalized.
The commissioners are set to hold the final vote on the budget during a Nov. 26 public hearing.

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine.