Citizen budget panel gets down to brass tacks

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By AJ Vicens

Two months after its first meeting, the Citizen Budget Review Panel is finally getting down to the nitty-gritty.

April 14 marked the group's fifth meeting and was the first time members discussed issues among themselves without county officials in the room.

First came a frank review of the options: The members could recommend that the county do nothing and save its money; that the county work on projects it has the money for and not finance anything; that the county float bonds (requiring voter approval); or that the county finance projects with certificates of participation (a lease-purchase arrangement that would not require voter approval).

The panel quickly dismissed the idea of doing nothing, acknowledging that the county has real needs and that inaction would only lead to bigger, more expensive problems down the road. But when the conversation turned to the other options, things weren’t so clear.

"We will not pass a bond in this economic climate," said panel member Mike Feeley. He said that COPs are an option if the panel recommends financing, and said it would be a way for the commissioners to finance projects that likely wouldn't be approved by voters.

"The commissioners fade the heat with COPs," Feeley said. "It's politics."

John Witwer, a panel member from the Evergreen area, said the only difference between bonds and COPs is the way the words are spelled.

"It's the way to get around the voters," said Bruce Strand.

"Exactly," Feeley said.

Greg Stevinson, another panel member, said that for major projects like a $40 million jail expansion, financing it now makes more sense than saving up over a number of years, by which time materials and labor would be more expensive, and the jail's needs would be greater.

The conversation marked a turn from the last meeting, when it seemed that most panelists favored using COPs to fund roughly $60 million in projects. It's unclear now whether the group will recommend the commissioners finance the county's construction needs or whether they'll recommend the county pay for projects as it has the money.

The members did agree on two things: They support the county's policy to maintain a 10 percent general fund balance for emergencies, and they want the county to create a separate reserve fund to pay for yearly maintenance and replacement for buildings and equipment.

The group also split the county's needs into projects they believe qualify for financing and those that don't. The group put $69.4 million worth of projects into the finance column and $18 million into a list of projects the county should pay for with money on hand.

The panel will begin to debate the merits of each individual project at its next meeting, scheduled for April 28.

The panel is made up of Jeffco residents who are sorting through the county's construction and equipment needs over the next few years and making recommendations on how it all should be paid for.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.