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It’s budget season, and the public is invited

The fall leaves are beginning to show off their vibrant colors, mornings are crisp and clear, and the sound of gunfire echoes through the mountain meadows. In Pagosa country, the signs are everywhere that it must be budget season.

Heading into the final quarter of the year, various local governments and districts are either looking at beginning their budgeting process for 2010 or are well into preliminary budgets for the next year.

Case in point is the Upper San Juan Health Services District (USJHSD). On Tuesday night, the district approved its preliminary 2010 budget, hearing good news for the year ahead.

“Certainly, 2009 was a financial improvement,” said district Chief Financial Officer Gene Kaberline, “and we’ll continue to do that with the outpatient volume we have. We’re self-sufficient at this point.”

In fact, with the USJHSD’s preliminary budget projecting $277,000 revenues in excess of expenses for this year and $316,280 for 2010, the district appears to be in fine fettle. Kaberline does provide a caveat for the preliminary numbers, however, adding, “There still has to be a recognition of our debt service.”

Kaberline said those numbers would be added in future iterations of the USJHSD’s budget and that the final draft of the budget would be open to public input during a special budget hearing on Oct. 27 at 6:30 p.m., with the district board voting on the budget following the hearing.

Looking into the next few weeks, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) is well into its own budget process and, according to PAWSD Special Projects Manager Sheila Berger, “The district has a statutory requirement to have a draft budget to the board by October 15.”

PAWSD Assistant Finance Manager Michelle Tressler said that the board’s budget committee will meet late next week and that, “I already have a preliminary budget well under way, but I’ll get input from the committee.”

After submitting the preliminary budget to the board on Oct. 15, PAWSD will then open the process to the public, with a budget workshop scheduled for Oct. 19 and a number of public hearings to be scheduled in the following weeks. “It (the budget) will go through a series of refinements through that process,” Tressler said.

Tressler said that PAWSD will publish notice of public hearings in early November.

By statute, Archuleta County must release finalized assessed property values to PAWSD by Dec. 10, at which point the district will certify those values for the mill levy by Dec. 15 (again, per statute). According to Tressler, although PAWSD typically files its final budget after acceptance by the board (following mill levy certification) it has, by law, until Jan. 30 to file its final budget.

Despite pending protests for property valuations, Archuleta County formally began its budget process yesterday and, according to Shannon Kreuser, county accountant, the process, “Starts with preliminary meetings with department heads ... we’ll look to see what they’re requesting.”

Kreuser added that the county’s budget is due for completion and a vote at the BoCC’s Dec. 15 meeting.

County Administrator and Budget Director Greg Schulte said that the preliminary budget would be ready by Oct. 13, however, and the county’s budget process was already well under way. “We actually started it a long time ago,” he said. “We actually distributed spread sheet templates that we have back in July. Those were all due, and were submitted to us in late August.”

Fortunately, prior to resigning, county Finance Director Don Warn provided county officials with revenue projections.

“We have our revenue projections and I will sit down with our department heads and elected officials to do a line-by-line analysis over the next month,” said Schulte.

As with other government entities, the county will open the budgeting process for public input and Schulte said, “There will be an opportunity for the public to view the process with budget hearings in November.”

For its part, the Town of Pagosa Springs begins its formal budget process the middle of next month, although department heads have already made plans for a tight budget next year. Currently, the town is on a 15-percent reduction from the 2008 budget, in response to declining sales tax revenues (down 6.84 percent from last year).

Last November, the town adopted a flexible budget policy approach to answer local and national economic distress, leveraging a 10-percent reduction after a 5-percent decrease in sales tax revenues, a 15-percent reduction after a 10-percent reduction in sales tax revenues, and so forth.

Despite an indication that the recession could be slowing — signalled by a lessening of declines in sales tax revenue numbers — the town has elected to stay with a 15-percent reduction of last year’s budget even though, by policy, that reduction could be lowered to 10 percent.

The public will get a chance to observe the town’s budgeting process as the Pagosa Springs Town Council holds public work sessions on the budget later in the fall.

The exception this fall is the Archuleta School District 50 Joint, which approved its budget this past June. Since the school district works on a fiscal year calendar different than other major, local taxing entities (with its year effectively ending at the end of May), it stands to reason the district would not currently be under the gun to produce a 2010 budget.

“In early February is when we start planning our budget for the next year,” said District Business Manager Janell Wood. “March and April is when we really start looking at staffing, expenses, student count and other things.”

Wood added that the district’s board has a preliminary budget in May and adopts the budget during its June meeting.

While each district and government body has its own budget protocol and works within its own budgeting format, one common thread runs through the process: Each is open to public scrutiny and input. Although all of us can understand the allure of taking advantage of an Indian Summer or spending the day on the slopes (or griping about local politics over a cup of coffee), budgets will be worked through, with or without the participation of local citizens. With hearing dates and times posted in The SUN (and on the various entities’ Web sites), there should be no mystery on how local budgets are developed or how tax dollars are spent — so long as local residents make the effort and take the time to attend those hearings.

jim@pagosasun.com