OPINION: County disingenuous on budget management

JoAnn Kalenak, President DCCR Board of Directors —

Last week, Administrator Robbie LeValley kicked off the county’s 2019 budget process with a fact-sheet and slide presentation to commissioners and department heads. To some of the points made during the presentation: Administrator LeValley began the discussion with an overview of the current economic climate and included a few historical numbers. On several occasions she mentioned that the county’s overall income growth is “relatively flat.” Her historical graph of sales and property tax, however, showed growth of more than 15% since 2009 and more than 5% growth in 2017 — this is anything but flat.


While I appreciate a certain level of caution on the part of Delta County were taxpayer money is concerned, the economy is clearly trending upward. Fueling the impression of a poor and downtrodden county is self-destructive and has led to austerity measures that have forced the people of Delta County to go without even when funds exist.


Next, Administrator LeValley addressed the looming question about county reserves. According to a fact-sheet provided at the meeting, the county currently holds $18.7 million in reserve. For the first time, we were shown how the various funds break down into three spending categories: Restricted, those funds whose spending is dictated by law; Committed and Assigned, funds that are voter approved, have state requirements, or are earmarked for specific activities; and Unrestricted, funds kept “in savings” for expenditures that have not already been budgeted.


I have made the argument that the county is, essentially, sitting on more than half of its budget. Administrator LeValley attempted to explain my “misunderstanding of the county budget” using the above category definitions saying that the  $6.2 million in unrestricted funds currently held by the county only equates to 28% of the county budget rather than the 53% — or $18.7 million in total reserves — that I have asserted.


The county has failed to fully address issues surrounding reserves.


The county has a 25% unrestricted “savings” account which currently adds up to $6.2 million. Mesa County, with a much larger inventory of infrastructure, maintains a 20% reserve by policy. This means that Delta County is holding 8% more in unrestricted reserves than the largest city on the Western Slope — that’s almost half a million dollars in excess savings.


The county must address it’s reasoning and explain why these higher reserves are required.


Equally important is the $12.5 million in reserves in the other spending accounts, which brings me to my point. By the county’s own definition, these funds — restricted and committed/assigned — are all allocated to be spent or used to transfer revenues where needed. In other words, these funds are allocated with the intention that they will be used for some purpose. Having large reserves in these accounts at the end of each year is the real issue at hand.


If the county already maintains unrestricted funds “to cover short-term operations, natural disasters, volatile revenue sources, potential state cuts”, etc., as stated by the Government Finance Officers Association, then why do the allocated accounts maintain a reserve at all?


Bottom line forced austerity is self-destructive to the county. Restricted, committed and assigned funds, by their very nature, should have little to no reserve at the end of the year. In a county with minimal services, poor roads and few amenities, it is fiscally irresponsible to hold almost half of the budget only to have the money be eaten away by inflation while languishing in zero-to-low interest-bearing accounts. Further, it’s disingenuous to tell constituents, year-after-year, that while funds were allocated, they were not spent and therefore roll into the next fiscal budget. When this continues to happen, as it has for at least a decade, these funds become tantamount to one large slush fund.


Commissioners, now is the time to rethink your budget policies. Now is the time to tell your constituents exactly how you plan to spend their hard-earned money.


And, if you don’t intend to provide a detailed plan, then maybe now is the time to give the money back.