Council eases budget projection

Taking a step back and a moment to breathe, the Pagosa Springs Town Council considered a draft budget proposal, presented at the Oct. 16 meeting, and pondered how much belt-tightening would be necessary during an uncertain economy.

As reported in the Oct. 23 edition of The SUN, the initial draft, as constructed by council members Darrel Cotton and Mark Weiler, called for a 22 percent cut across all departments to match a predicted 22 percent decrease in sales tax revenues.

However, not all members of council viewed the future so darkly. Echoing the sentiment of the majority of the council, Mayor Ross Aragon said, “Twenty percent is extreme, in my mind.”

Council member Stan Holt, though still cautious of increasingly tight economic times, nonetheless rejected the dire projections of the draft. “We do have to reduce expenses,” Holt said, “Personally, I think ten percent is a good start.”

Council eventually took Holt’s suggestion as the baseline from which to work towards a 2009 budget, for both cuts and forecasted revenue losses. Complimenting Cotten and Weiler’s work, Holt said, “I think you did good getting us down to the bare bones. Now I think we should start putting some things back.”

First and foremost among what would be put back were jobs that would have been eliminated in the initial draft.

Rather than cutting nine full-time positions — as proposed in the original draft and necessitated by its goal of a 22 percent cut — council agreed to try and retain those jobs. “I recommend a hiring freeze,” said Aragon.

Council member Shari Pierce went further, stating she would like to see cost-of-living allowances (COLA) returned to the budget. Cotton disagreed, saying, “Look at the private sector and see what they’re doing. They’re laying people off. Freezing COLA is minimal.”

Speaking from the audience, Bobby Hart agreed with Cotton. “I can understand retaining COLA and merit pay,” Hart said, “for morale. But in this economy, just holding onto a job should make anyone happy.”

Having agreed that 10 percent would be a more realistic figure than 22 percent, council members discussed how to proceed with configuring a budget to meet unpleasant economic realities. Not present, but attending via conference call, newly-appointed town manager David Mitchem weighed in on the discussion, saying, “I think a measured response to the markets is appropriate. We need to prioritize in each department so, that way, if we do have a downturn, we can respond in a timely manner.”

Council also looked to what services should be saved from budget cuts. Council member Angela Atkinson expressed her support for keeping the Summer Fun program, due to how much it helps working parents while school is out. Aragon spoke passionately in defense of retaining funding for the victim’s assistance program.

Furthermore, interim town manager Tamra Allen spoke of the need to restructure the budget so that funds for the general fund and the fund for capital improvements would be seperated out in unique accounts. Allen also stated that she had agreed to stay on with the town until the end of the year, to help facilitate the transition period for the new town manager.

Budget discussions will continue during the next month and a half. Considering the call to scale back cuts and revenue shortfalls to 10 percent, staff agreed to reformulate another proposed budget using those figures, delivering the proposal at the next work session, Friday, Nov. 7, at noon at Town Hall. Department heads and service organizations get their bite at the apple Monday, Nov. 17, at noon.

The completed 2009 budget is tentatively set for submission for approval Dec. 16.

jim@pagosasun.com