COVID impacts county budget proposal, 6.7% lower than 2020
The Summit County Council is set to vote on a $57 million budget proposal Wednesday, a decision that officials refer to as the most important policy move of the year, but one that generally receives little public feedback.
Last year, in the vibrant pre-pandemic economy, budget discussions focused on allocating money to rainy-day funds and not adding too many positions so the county wouldn’t be forced to lay off staffers if lean times came.
This year, the economic situation is starkly different, and the public discussions occurred under the pall of pandemic-related budget shortfalls.
Each December, the county adopts its operating budget and those of several service districts that it oversees, including the Park City Fire District and the Snyderville Basin Recreation District.
Last year, the County Council unanimously passed a $61.4 million budget, but six months later had slashed $5 million from the totals in belt-tightening measures amid the pandemic.
Last Wednesday, County Finance Director Matt Leavitt presented a $57.3 million budget to the County Council, a $4.1 million reduction from the 2020 total, but a 2.7% increase over the budget councilors amended in late spring.
High-ranking officials including Leavitt, County Manager Tom Fisher and members of a budget committee are tasked with balancing County Council strategic goals with economic realities.
Nearly two-thirds of the county’s budget is dedicated to salaries and benefits that go to the roughly 350 county employees, and millions of dollars more are dedicated to services the county is compelled to offer like maintaining roads and bridges and collecting trash. Leavitt said that $13.5 million is dedicated to infrastructure projects like building and repairing roads and bridges.
A substantial amount of the budget reductions earlier this year came from a hiring freeze and scrapping merit and cost-of-living pay increases for county employees. Leavitt reported the county is planning to save around $1.3 million in the salaries and benefits of frozen positions by leaving them unfilled in 2021.
The county is considering hiring three new positions next year and unfreezing three other positions, including a senior planner, a criminal investigator at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and a cadastral mapper in the Recorder’s Office.
The county is also considering hiring new transportation staffers to help drastically expand the Snyderville Basin Transit District to enable it to take over county-based bus routes this July.
Fisher’s recommended budget includes $410,000 in one-time “incentive pay” that is tied to the county receiving a certain amount in sales tax during the upcoming ski season.
And he is recommending spending about $480,000 in reserves and increasing the curbside collection fee for trash by 50%, netting $400,000.
In an interview, Fisher said that he expects the pandemic to continue impacting the county’s work plan well into 2021.
“The current emergency, effects of that emergency, are still probably … having the biggest effect on our budget in 2021,” Fisher said. “It is still the major item that’s going to affect, not only what we get done, but how we allocate resources during the year and then what resources come in during future years. It is making its presence known.”
Staffers have often had to work outside of their departments to support emergency functions this year, and Fisher said that he expects employee bandwidth to be a limiting factor throughout next year.
Many are working long hours without breaks, and he said efforts like supporting mass vaccination campaigns will likely continue into the third quarter of 2021.
The Summit County Council is set to vote on a fee schedule that includes a 50% jump in curbside collection fees.
The fee would rise from $40 to $60 and net the county an additional $400,000 in revenue annually.
Even with the increase, the revenue would cover less than half the total cost of the program.
Property taxes would cover about 55% of the trash collection program if the fee increase is approved, comprising about 10% of the county portion of a tax bill. Officials have indicated fees in Summit County are lower than elsewhere and that they would like the program to pay for itself with user fees. Councilors have indicated it is more equitable for the program’s users to pay for it rather than it be subsidized by property taxes.
While there’s enough money to perform improvements on the Kamas park-and-ride, there isn’t a staff member with the time to lead the project, he said. And a push to consider raising taxes might be another casualty of overburdened employees. The county had a policy to examine raising property taxes by going through the truth-in-taxation process every five years, but that will likely be pushed until 2022, Fisher said.
The finance department has a position that hasn’t been filled, and Leavitt has been busy working to prepare proposals for around $20 million in bonds to take advantage of low interest rates, Fisher indicated.
“You have to make choices at the end of the day,” Fisher said of prioritizing some issues in his budget recommendation.
Uncertainty hangs over the County Council’s decision-making process in the early days of the first full ski season during the pandemic. Predictions indicate large-scale dropoffs in the tourism industry that drives sales tax revenue, and the Sundance Film Festival recently announced it was canceling almost all of the in-person events normally held in the Park City area.
Fisher acknowledged that would have an effect on county coffers, but that it wasn’t unexpected and fit within recent predictions.
He added that economic indicators have been all over the map, with increasing home values, record home sales and improving unemployment rates all coming amid the expected slowdown in the tourism industry.
The county might be forced to adopt a more austere budget next year, he said, depending on the economic activity during the first quarter of 2021.
“Our crystal ball isn’t that good,” Fisher said of predicting into 2022.
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