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Citizen budgeters recommend county finance $60 million in projects

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By AJ Vicens

Jeffco’s Citizen Budget Review Panel will formally recommend that the county spend $5 million annually for the next 20 years to finance more than $60 million in construction and equipment needs.

The panel, made up of county residents, 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, $10 million in parking lot expansions countywide, 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 group ruled out doing nothing, and also ruled out recommending that the county ask voters to approve issuing bonds. Another option would be for the county to use money it already has to pay for projects. A fourth option is to use certificates of participation, a form of lease-purchase agreement that, unlike a bond issue, would not require a vote of county residents.

The panel voted unanimously May 12 to recommend 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 panel will also recommend the county fund the debt without raising taxes; that would preclude a bond issue, which is usually funded by a dedicated mill levy.

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 agreed to the recommendation after deciding it didn't want to restrict the county's options when it came to financing. But there are really only two options to raise the kind of money that's needed without raising taxes: certificates of participation and the Buy America Bonds, also known as BOBs. BOBs were created under the recent federal stimulus legislation to help states, cities and counties find more financing for major projects. They operate under a somewhat complicated system, but they're similar to certificates of participation in that they don't require voter approval.

"You're still at the very bottom of borrowing costs for government (projects)," said J.J. Ament, a former banker with experience in municipal finance. Ament spoke to the panel May 12 to explain the various financing options.

"Here we have this confluence of conditions, and the money to do it to boot," said panel member Mike Feeley, a former state senator.

Another former legislator on the panel, John Witwer, advocated a general recommendation in terms of financing, and told the panel to avoid "tying the county's hands" by recommending certificates of participation or BOBs.

"Give that responsibility to them," Witwer said.

The panel also will likely recommend the county fund an annual maintenance and replacement fund for things like air-conditioning units at county facilities.

The panel's next meeting is 5:30 p.m. May 26 at the Taj Mahal.

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