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County ‘sales pitch’ irks citizen budgeters

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By AJ Vicens

Some members of the citizen panel asked to prioritize $277 million in county spending over the next four years are growing tired of the “sales pitch” from the county and want to get to work.

The 15-member panel is looking at plans for construction, equipment and maintenance spending and has met three times since Feb. 24 for hours-long presentations on county needs. The first two meetings were devoted to more than $50 million in needs for the sheriff’s office and discussions on the county’s overall operating budget. The third meeting, on March 17, focused on expansion of the courts and administration building to house a dozen new judges over the next decade at a cost of more than $9 million; the county’s IT and computer needs (roughly $3.5 million through 2012); and how to deal with more than $136 million in costs to either build or maintain county buildings.

But many of the panel members want to know what the county’s priorities are — after Commissioner Kevin McCasky told the group March 3 that officials will conduct their own prioritization process outside the scope of the panel.

“I would believe I’m derelict in my duty if I didn’t have a plan,” McCasky told the panel March 17 after attempting to rebuff several questions about the county’s construction plans, and why the group can’t simply see and evaluate them.

“I have a plan,” McCasky said. “I just don’t want to share it with you.”

Panel member Bruce Strand then summed up his frustration.

“We as a panel need to know where you’re coming from,” Strand said. “It’s not a criticism … you brought us here to hear our views.” Strand and several other panel members wanted a clear breakdown of what county departments actually need, and what they can do without.

“Tell me what you absolutely have to have,” Strand said.

McCasky said presentations made to the panel by county departments represent those priorities.

But the panel still must make it own choices. For instance, the county says it could either spend more than $20 million on a new community corrections facility or spend $15 million on renovating the current building.

Panel member Greg Stevinson served on a similar committee in 2006. He’s been helping the other members by telling them what to expect.

“At some point, when they’re done shoveling, we can get to the nuts and bolts,” Stevinson said, referring to the county dumping loads of financial data on the panel. But, he said, the county’s presentations are helpful because the panel needs to come up with solid recommendations.

“At some point … we need to help build some support for what Jefferson County needs,” Stevinson said.

Joe Dix, another panel member, said the panel is ready to formulate recommendations.

“I’d like to see us do something a little more concrete here,” Dix said.

But other members, such as Karen Verdier, said they weren’t ready to make decisions.

For its March 31 meeting, the panel requested a breakdown of the county’s actual needs versus wants, a list of which projects could start soon (to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs), and a clear idea of what the proposed facilities will do to benefit Jeffco residents. The group is supposed to make formal recommendations by May 26.

This is the second time the county has convened a citizen budget review panel. The first was in 2006, when a group was asked to recommend cuts in the county’s operating budget. The county ended up using the majority of that panel’s recommendations.

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