La Plata County plans to carry out a number of construction and development projects totaling millions of dollars next year, in part to help send an economic jolt through the county and counter the negative financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
La Plata County officials Tuesday presented the 2021 proposed budget, which includes major projects the county previously identified as long-term strategic needs.
County Manager Chuck Stevens said the cost of the projects would be covered by the “unrestricted fund balance,” money stashed away for unforeseen county needs on a “rainy day.”
Stevens told commissioners the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered a “rainy day,” and kick-starting things like construction projects will likely lead to more jobs and spending within the community.
“This is exactly what the unrestricted fund balance is intended for,” he said.
According to county records, the proposed projects would amount to upward of $20 million. The projects, at this stage, are just proposed and may change in the coming weeks as the budget is reviewed and fine-tuned.
About $1.7 million would be covered by grant funding.
The proposed list includes cleaning up lead issues at the gun range near La Posta Road (County Road 213), retrofitting county buildings with solar energy and remodeling the vacant DeNier Youth Services Center building.
Other proposed projects included: contributing money to help install a regional weather radar station, refurbishing the Old Main Post Office, constructing an autopsy room for the La Plata County Coroner’s Office and improving La Posta Road.
“The majority of these are either investment for future economic development or investments to offset a cost the county currently has,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff.
Adam Rogers, the county’s finance director, said next year’s budget is in a good financial position to make these investments, which will also benefit the community as the economy slows.
“What better way to help our community by doing some projects when it looks like the economy is going to slow down?” he said. “It’s great to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
For years, La Plata County’s budget was in a tailspin, mostly as a result of a steep drop in natural gas prices, causing the county’s property tax revenue to decline from $29.4 million in 2010 to $14.9 million in 2018, about 50%.
The fall in property tax revenue resulted in La Plata County having less money for its operating budget, causing the county to cut services to residents, reduce staff and not embark on as many maintenance projects.
But last year, La Plata County officials maintained the budget had evened out, allowing the county to start reinvesting in certain services, such as hiring back staff members and improving roads.
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, La Plata County’s 2021 budget and financial outlook remain in a healthy position, county officials said Tuesday.
Revenues, overall, are projected to be at nearly $63 million, down about 8% from last year, largely because of a one-time $7 million grant in 2019 to help fortify homes from flooding as a result of the 416 Fire.
Property tax, which accounts for about 25% of revenues, is projected at nearly $16 million, about the same as last year. Sales tax, which accounts for about 28% of revenues, is projected at around $18 million, also about the same as last year.
County expenditures are projected to be about $82 million, up nearly 9% from last year, with most of that increase associated to an increase in salary and health benefits, Rogers said. Operating costs, about $20 million, remained flat from last year.
“We’re tightening up our budget more than we did last year,” Rogers said.
Also included in the budget are four road and bridge projects totaling just over $6.8 million, with about $3 million in expected grants and contributions, for roadwork around the county.
Major projects include:
Work at county roads 220/219 in association with U.S. Highway 550 Fastlane project.Mill and overlay on County Road 523.Canal bridge replacement on County Road 228.Mill and overlay on County Road 203.Commissioners will meet with department heads next week to fine-tune the budget. A public hearing about the proposed budget will be held Oct. 20. And commissioners will consider whether to adopt it Nov. 24.