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County's 2017 budget increases by 13%

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In spite of economic headwinds from the Bowie Mine shutdown and declining sales tax, severance tax revenues and mineral leasing payments, the county commissioners last week appropriated $31.5 million for the 2017 budget -- an amount $3.79 million higher, or 13 percent more than the county's 2016 budget.

Asked about the increase in 2017 expenditures, county administrator Robbie LeValley provided the following explanation via email: "All activity including grants are tracked in the entire budget. The increase is due to the county commitment to broadband, the entire cost of the dispatch radio grants, master plan grants, recreational master trail grant, PILT funds, insurance premium adjustments for employees, upgrading the courthouse elevator and jail elevator, courthouse renovation architect grant, landfill liner, major road improvements and capital equipment."

In other words, grant funding for various projects contributes to the spending increase next year. LeValley also noted separately that Congress provided full funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes and U.S. Forest Service payments to counties.

Highlights of the budget document, some of them taken from the budget message delivered to commissioners at their Dec. 5 budget public hearing, follow:

County finances have been hurt by big declines in revenue from the energy sector. The budget message states, "Revenue from the energy sector decreased 50 percent in 2016 and the county is projecting a 25 percent decline in 2017.

"Projections for 2017 from the federal mineral leasing funds and severance taxes are expected to be significantly reduced due to recent shutdowns and slowdowns in the coal mines.

"The 2017 budget reflects reductions in federal mineral leasing funds, production taxes and severance taxes."

Overall, the county's sales tax revenue picture continues to be a dark one. Sales tax revenue collected by county government is seen as an indicator of the level of retail trade and overall economic health. The budget message reports that "2016 year-to-date sales tax collections are a negative 1.5 percent when compared to last year's collections. The [2016] budget had projected a negative 1 percent [decline] in sales tax revenues.

"The projection for 2017 collections anticipates a decrease in sales tax revenues given the current trend in sales tax revenues statewide, as well as locally, and the significant layoffs in our energy sector."

Earlier in the year county officials worried that the Bowie Mine shutdown would blow a $562,000 hole in the 2017 budget by loss of property and production tax revenues. However, the county assessor reports an unexpected $500,000 increase to the county via "state assessed properties" including railroads all but wiped out the anticipated loss. The budget message states, "Property tax revenues for 2017 in the amount of $4.95 million are estimated on a [county] mill levy of 16.03."

The 2016 budget esimtated property tax revenues of $4.97 million on a county mill levy of 15.7.

The county was hit with a 12 percent increase in its employee health insurance premiums for 2017. The county will pick the entire cost of the increase resulting in an average 3 percent increase in employee compensation. County employees will get no cost of living increase.

The 2017 budget proposes expenditures from the capital improvements fund totalling $3.9 million.

Capital improvements money goes to several different county departments. Road and bridge will get $1.6 million of the total for road maintenance projects. Other money goes to the library district ($50,000) and to the landfill ($99,650) as part of a $700,000 expansion project.

According to the budget message, "In addition, the capital improvements fund budget provides for setting aside $3.47 million in a reserve account for the anticipated improvements to the courthouse campus including the jail and court facilities."

The annual budget message to commissioners notes the county remains committed to its pledge of financial support to municipalities as part of the Region 10 broadband project. The commissioners originally pledged over $750,000 for that use.

Delta County continues to benefit from a policy of maintaining significant cash reserves in each of its budget funds.

The county has also benefitted from a policy of maintaining low-to-no debt. The county currently has an $81,622 balance on a lease/purchase agreement for heavy equipment used at Adobe Buttes landfill. Other than that amount, the county is considered "debt free."

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