Summit County passes $57.4M budget, debates savings strategy
The item in the 2021 Summit County budget that appears most likely to draw the public’s notice is a $20 increase to the trash removal fee, a move that will generate $400,000 annually but one that might raise the eyebrows of taxpayers.
The County Council on Wednesday night unanimously passed a $57.4 million 2021 budget that includes revenue from the trash fee increase, as well as a new county planning position — a last minute addition — to aid an overworked department that operated without a senior staffer for most of last year.
The budget is 6.5% smaller than the 2020 adopted budget, a result of the coronavirus pandemic that has diminished the county’s revenues. It does not require a tax increase. Officials indicated the county portion of property tax bills might next increase in 2022.
The council also adopted an outline of the projects county staffers would pursue next year, signing a compact with County Manager Tom Fisher that included a detailed work plan.
Fisher told the council that he expected the effects of the pandemic to last well into next year and indicated that he built time into the work plan for staffers to recover from the pandemic push and to start using vacation time again.
The 2021 budget dips into county reserves for around $500,000, a prospect that appeared to give Councilor Roger Armstrong pause.
Elected officials and the county manager have consistently touted the importance of maintaining ample reserves in the county’s operating funds.
Armstrong scrutinized whether it was advisable to use county savings ahead of a year filled with financial uncertainty, questioning Summit County Finance Director Matt Leavitt’s estimate that county’s sales tax revenue would roughly equal the amount brought in this year.
“Well, 2020 came in on the heels of a record-setting ski year that got cut a month early. So, I’m not sure I’m willing to bet that ’21 looks like 2020,” Armstrong said. He went on to indicate that, while the vaccine outlook appears bright, the pandemic is far from over, and it’s unclear how that will affect the ski season and the revenue it normally generates.
Sales taxes are applied to virtually all purchases and tend to rise along with the influx of tourists that normally visit the area each ski season. Sales taxes are projected to make up 18% of county revenue in 2021, while property taxes are expected to contribute 44%, according to county data.
There have been some signs of optimism for sales tax receipts in recent weeks, but the revenue generated in the core of the ski season from December through March dwarfs that of the summer and traditional shoulder seasons, where the gains were made.
Fisher has indicated that economic indicators are offering mixed messages, with low sales tax projections but increasing property values and a very active real estate market. The effects of this ski season will impact next year’s budget, and low visitation would potentially force the county to make further cuts.
That seemed to lead Armstrong to look twice at the decision to use rainy-day funds, knowing that the county may not be able to replenish them soon. Officials have indicated it has taken years to rebuild the county’s savings after the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
“I think the bottom line is, we’re not going to be able to add anything to fund balances probably for close to two years,” Armstrong said.
Leavitt said that each fund is within an acceptable range of savings. Split among the three main operating funds, the county has about $17 million in reserves, Leavitt wrote in an email to The Park Record.
Fisher recommended using about $138,000 of the general fund’s $5.4 million fund balance.
Armstrong’s hesitation did not prevent him from supporting the budget or the addition of a new county planning staffer.
“The fund balances are there for times like this, I think,” Armstrong said.
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