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Citizen budgeters finalize recommendations

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By AJ Vicens

Jeffco's Citizen Budget Review Panel is recommending that the county finance several major construction projects over the next 20 years and establish a fund to handle annual maintenance and replacement costs — all without raising taxes.

The panel, made up of county residents with varied life experiences, has been meeting since late February to help officials prioritize spending on construction and equipment. Over the last few months, the group has met with various county departments to hear about the most pressing needs and has grappled with how to generate funds to finance the projects that county officials say are desperately needed.

Major projects include a $41 million jail expansion, $1.8 million to relocate the county's computer nerve center, and more than $8 million to buy buildings for at least two government hubs, where county services like motor vehicle registration, public health and assessor services would be in one building.

The panel met for the last time May 26 and will soon issue a public report outlining how it thinks the county should fund major construction and equipment needs without raising taxes.

The panel recommended spending $5 million annually for no more than 20 years on debt to fund "public safety infrastructure projects and to consolidate county government facilities throughout the county."

The members recommended the county finance the projects by using certificates of participation, which are a form of lease-purchase financing that does not require voter approval. At $5 million annually for 20 years, the county could borrow roughly $60 million. Any amount needed above that should come from the county's general fund, the panel said.

The $5 million yearly debt payment will come from the $7 million annual payment the county had been using to pay off construction of the Jefferson County Courts and Administration Building in Golden. That debt was paid off in late 2008.

The panel voted 8-2 to use debt to pay for the major projects, with the two opposed panelists uncomfortable with the county's estimated building costs. For instance, the county jail expansion, pegged at roughly $41 million, is based on 2007 figures. Several panelists, most notably Bruce Strand of Genesee, said the county should bring those estimates down by as much as 20 percent to reflect the recessionary economy.

Strand offered an amendment to the final report that asks the county to move projects with the best value (longest life coupled with lowest cost) to the top of its list, and to ask contractors to bring costs down whenever possible.

"Make it clear that (the county) has asked contractors to be more creative," Strand said May 26.

"We have a construction management division," replied Jeffco Commissioner Kevin McCasky. "Their sole purpose is to get the most value for the taxpayer dollar."

Strand, perhaps taking McCasky's comments to mean that the county would approach contracting situations the same as it always has, said the county should do more.

"The rest of the world is not living business as usual," Strand said.

Karen Verdier, a panelist from the Evergreen area, told the panel that the members "skirted around the issue of the (law enforcement authority)."

The law enforcement authority, known as the LEA, is funded by a tax paid by county residents for sheriff's operations in unincorporated parts of the county. Some believe residents of incorporated areas in the county pay too much into the LEA and that residents from unincorporated areas don't pay enough.

"The third rail of politics in the mountains of Jefferson County is the LEA," said Evergreen resident and panelist John Witwer.

Jeffco Commissioner Kathy Hartman called debate on the LEA a "chronic discussion" and suggested the panel recommend the county study the equity of LEA funding. Jacque Scott, a panelist from unincorporated Jeffco, wanted the panel to recommend the study.

"I'm being told I'm not going to get a sheriff's substation in my area because we don't pay our fair share of the LEA," Scott told the panel. "I've been paying taxes (in Jeffco) for 30 years, and I've heard nothing but mush about the LEA."

Scott's request for the panel to recommend a LEA equity study by the county failed on a 7-3 vote.

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

To read the Citizen Budget Review Panel's final report, visit www.jeffco.us, and click on the "Citizen Budget Review Panel" link on the top of the county's website. Call the Jefferson County Board of County Commissioners with questions about the report at: (303) 271-8525.