Opinion

Citizens Budget Committee serves as a check and balance on local government

Author: David Schlatter - December 13, 2017 - Updated: December 13, 2017

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David Schlatter

The Arapahoe County government spends nearly $400 million per year serving over 600,000 residents.  If your home or business is within the county, you pay the costs of that government.  Whether a homeowner or renter, increased property taxes impact everyone throughout the county.  If property taxes go up, so will rents.  Every citizen is affected.  Does Arapahoe County need a new jail, courthouse, and more taxes?  What about its pension obligations?

The Citizens Budget Committee (CBC) for Arapahoe County is a 15-member body appointed by county commissioners to represent citizens of the five county districts.  The CBC meets monthly and is charged to review the annual budget, proposals that have significant fiscal and operational impacts, and to provide recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC).

The County employs about 2,000 workers at an average annual cost of $81,500 each.  The CBC has raised questions ­­about salary and benefit levels in comparison to both public and private sector equivalents.  It recommended the county engage an outside consultant to perform a zero-based budget analysis to evaluate essential services, reduce costs, and to differentiate mandated versus non-mandated services currently provided.  Presently, the county uses a baseline budget process that assumes the prior year budget and evaluates additional requests.

The county pension plan is expected to nearly double its unfunded liabilities over the next 30 years from $174 million to $321 million.  The CBC recommended 13 to 1 that the BOCC complete a study of the feasibility and potential cost savings of changing from a Defined Benefits Pension to another type of retirement plan for all newly hired county employees such as a Defined Contribution Plan, under which employees are primarily responsible for their retirement like those in the private sector.

Our road and bridge maintenance in unincorporated areas continue to present a budget challenge.  The CBC suggested issuing bonds for road and bridge projects as a solution to cover needs without an open-ended tax increase.

The CBC raised concerns about the county seeking help from outside sources for new potential tax initiatives, the scope of which omits cost saving initiatives.  For example, the CBC strongly encourages more diversion program support to lower its judicial costs to the county.  The idea of repurposing the open space sales tax was also mentioned as a means to pay for new justice facilities if needed.  When that tax expires in 2023 it will have provided nearly $500 million toward developing parks and greenspace.  Rather than raising new taxes, this tax could be repurposed in part to build new jail and courtroom facilities.

What about our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the Gallagher Amendment?  Both are factors in play in Arapahoe County and around the state.  The 2018 budget forecasts rising tax revenues of 5.4 percent while service costs are projected to increase 6.5 percent.  Neither TABOR nor Gallagher are a problem.  In fact, these have held down the cost of government to the benefit of seniors on fixed income and new home buyers plus renters too.  TABOR is good and keeps a check on the rising cost of government.  Even so, it is not enough to prevent legislators from increasing more tax revenue to pay for our exploding state budget. Cost control and continuing to manage taxpayers’ money well are the main issues, especially with county pension liabilities projected to nearly double over the next 30 years.  We can certainly expect future taxpayer contributions to increase for the pension plan unless new solutions are found.  Even the state is trying to get its pension liabilities to 100-percent-funded. The county should too.  That is the message the CBC stressed to the BOCC at its year-end meeting.

Arapahoe County provides important services at a reasonable cost to taxpayers and the CBC will continue to reinforce responsible budget leadership.   Presently all CBC members serve a one-year term, recurring at the will of commissioners.  It needs three-year terms with a two-term maximum like 17 of 25 other county boards and committees.   The CBC also has a role on the county’s Long Range Budget Committee to reinforce our citizens’ voice in this important group that reviews long term revenues and operational and capital expenditures.

As CBC chair, I implore citizens and taxpayers to get involved.  Too often we focus on national and state-level issues when much more direct impacts are felt at our city and county level, such as potential new taxes.  With over 600,000 residents, the input of 15 citizens is not enough to represent the entire county.  Talk to your commissioner.  Share concerns with your county-wide elected officials: treasurer, sheriff, clerk, coroner and assessor. All five plus two commissioners are up for reelection in 2018.  Get involved in a city or county committee. Come to public hearings.  It is your county.  Take action.

David Schlatter

David Schlatter

David Schlatter, a commercial real estate advisor, is chair of the 2017 Citizens Budget Committee for Arapahoe County