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Paonia splits tax windfall between bonuses, reserve

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After learning that Paonia will receive unexpectedly high 2017 sales tax revenues, town trustees found themselves somewhat in disagreement about what to do with the windfall.

In the end, you might say, The Grinch and Santa Claus found a way to compromise.

At last week's board meeting, town treasurer Ross King explained that unexpectedly high projections in 2017 local sales tax revenues will leave the town with a windfall of roughly $18,000 in unallocated funds. King suggested the board put the money toward year-end bonuses for the town's 10 employees.

Trustees Karen Budinger and Chelsea Bookout, representing the town's Finance and Personnel committee, recommend that, while acknowledging the board is looking at a very tight 2018 budget, the board approve the bonuses, and that they be distributed based on annual employee performance reviews, as determined by Town Administrator Ken Knight.

Trustee Bookout backed their recommendation with some examples of exemplary employee performances. Since taking over collection of utility payments, town clerk Corinne Ferguson has reduced money owed on accounts more than 90 days past due from $40,000 to less than $150.

Since being promoted to police chief last April, Neil Ferguson has saved the department roughly $10,000 by going after grants to purchase equipment, said Bookout. Before his promotion, "There were no grants being sought." The department has also increased revenues for fines and fees. "That's a big asset for the town."

Public works director Travis Loberg has acquired some 400 hours of comp time while overseeing a major water plant improvement project and two major water distribution improvements projects.

Town finance officer Cindy Jones worked to secure large grants for those major projects. "It's not easy to get grants of that size and to account for them," said Bookout. In doing so, Jones has "gone beyond the scope of her job."

With the exception of modest raises for the town clerk and police chief, who are paid well below the salary range for their position, town employees won't see cost of living increases in 2018. What they will see is "huge increases" in health insurance costs, effectively reducing their net pay. "I think this is a way that the town can at least offer something to the employees who really make this town run," said Bookout.

The town regularly awarded out end-of-year bonuses until 2016, noted town administrator Ken Knight. He contacted area communities and found that "most" are giving between 2.5 to 3 percent wage increases in 2018. Those pay raises are "nowhere near what the bonuses would amount to," said Knight. Those communities, he said, have also seen an even higher increase in sales tax revenues than Paonia.

Knight said he preaches setting money aside for a rainy day, but in looking at the big picture, $18,000 won't go far. "As a gesture, I believe this would be appreciated," said Knight.

Calling it a "difficult decision," mayor pro tem David Bradford urged trustees to put the entire windfall into reserves. He said he would have a difficult time looking citizens in the eye and saying they awarded bonuses despite the town's financial difficulties.

"I question how we can consider making bonuses when we just canceled the parks maintenance contract for economic reasons," said Bradford. "And on top of that, we're asking for a sales tax increase because we don't have enough money. Those seem to be conflicting desires."

The town is operating on a "bare-bones staff... and they have done a very good job, and it would be nice to recognize that," said Mayor Charles Stewart. But with building town reserves a priority, "Is there a potential compromise?"

Bookout motioned that the $15,000 go to staff bonuses, and $5,000 reserves. Budinger seconded.

Trustee Bill Bear motioned to modify the main motion and limit bonuses to no more than 50 percent, with the balance going to reserves. With two trustees absent, the vote was tied at 2-2. Mayor Stewart cast the tiebreaker vote in favor of the modification.

Bradford said his reasoning is based on his 34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service. In government, he said, any bonuses must be tied to a specific reason or accomplishment and must meet guidelines. Seeing little support for putting all of the money in reserves, he declined to make a motion, and suggested the board consider a policy for staff bonuses.

Speaking from her background as a business owner, Bookout said she was "appalled" that anyone would try to deny the bonuses. "I will look any person in this town in the eye and be okay with saying, 'We did this, and we need to have a sales (tax) increase,' because these people are an asset to this town."

The town will never find a Cindy Jones, Corinne Ferguson, Neil Ferguson or Travis Loberg for what they are currently paid, said Bookout. "And if you think that you can, you are sorely mistaken."

"I think there is an attempt here tonight to try to make sure that we recognize the contribution that employees make, yet at the same time, make sure that we do what we need to do to maintain the town's financial stability," said Stewart. That is the struggle the board faces.

The final motion passed, 4-0. "Thank you, folks," said Mayor Stewart. "It's a tough issue."

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