BoCC to consider budget, review audit

Financial matters will take center stage during the next two weeks, as county staff, department heads and elected officials put the finishing touches on the 2009 budget and prepare to receive the results from the 2007 government audit.

The board of county commissioners will hear both items during their regular meeting Dec. 16.

According to Archuleta County Finance Director Don Warn, the 2009 budget includes a number of items heretofore unseen in the organization’s budgets.

First, the 2009 document includes allocation of dollars to fund a vehicle replacement and computer replacement plan.

Warn said many county staff use seven to eight-year-old computers, and the plan includes replacing one third of all county computers by the end 2009. Warn said dollars in the Ballot Issue 1A technology fund will provide seed money for the program, but by 2010, Warn said dollars for the program will come from departmental budgets.

Warn called the program a “major step in the right direction.”

Much like the computer replacement plan, the vehicle replacement plan will allocate dollars for the purchase of new vehicles instead of spending for maintenance on aging vehicles that should be retired from the county fleet.

In addition, and with voter approval of Referred Issue 1A, the county has secured a reliable revenue stream — via sales tax — for the Road Capital Improvement Fund, which will keep projects on target for 2009, Warn said.

In addition, because the ballot language locks in the revenue stream in perpetuity, Warn said the county may be able to leverage those dollars for larger projects in the future.

A draft of the budget puts sales tax collections at $3.27 million which represents a 3-percent decrease in collections from 2007.

The budget includes some good news for county employees. Although cost of living allowances (COLA) and merit pay have been axed — at least for now — Warn forecasts no layoffs in 2009.

Warn said COLA allowances could be revisited with a mid-year budget amendment.

In addition, slight changes to the employee health benefit plan will result in lower costs to the county, but will yield certain plan upgrades at no cost to the employee. For example, under one such change, employees will be able to receive in-network discounts, even when they receive care outside the area.

When asked about the possibility of raises for administration staff, Warn said the 2009 budget was not programmed for such, nor was it programmed for hiring additional personnel in the administration department.

“There are no raises for any employees or admin staff,” Warn said.

In addition to finalizing the budget, Warn said auditors with Wall, Smith, Bateman and Associates are finalizing the 2007 government audit for submittal to the board of county commissioners and the state.

Although well past the state mandated deadline of July 31, 2008, Warn said the county should have the 2007 audit to state officials before his own “drop-dead date” of Jan. 1.

If the document arrives in the state auditor’s office by the new year, Warn said the currently imposed freeze on the county’s property tax revenue will be lifted and just before property taxes begin to arrive in early 2009. By contrast, if the freeze continues into the new year, Warn said county finances will be stressed, although he anticipates no further delays.

An audit submittal and a lifting of the freeze before the new year would mark a major milestone and the first such occurrence in years.

For example, missed audit deadlines in 2003, 2004 and 2005 resulted in property tax freezes that dug deep into the next budget year, with the worst freeze imposed for a late 2005 audit. That freeze lasted from Nov. 6, 2006 to April 20, 2007.

Another milestone, Warn said, is the possibility the county may receive an unqualified opinion for it’s 2007 financials.

Qualified opinions began in 2005, persisted in 2006, and may appear again in 2007 because of issues carried over from 2006.

“It’s a cleaner audit, but it’s not ideal yet,” said Warn, but the agency is getting close.

Since 2007, the county has taken great pains to clean up its books, and record keeping procedures. To that end, new policies and procedures have been established, and although things aren’t perfect, Warn said the organization should break the cycle of late unqualified audits in March or April of 2009, when auditors begin the 2008 audit according to schedule.

Although a draft of the audit is not yet available, citizens can view the proposed 2009 budget at www.archuletacounty.org.

james@pagosasun.com