By Sallie Clark
Editor’s note: Sallie Clark submitted this explanation for her 2008 vote as an El Paso County commissioner. The response follows Sixty35’s March 2 report, “Shortchanged?
Mayoral candidate took action as a county commissioner that cost the city millions.”
In 2008, El Paso County was struggling with extraordinary budget pressures. The Great Recession of 2008 had actually begun with a slowing national and regional economy in
2007. The recession resulted in reduced revenues for all local governments, but counties were especially hard hit because of their unique role in providing mandatory services which increase in cost when the economy is weak and unemployment rises.
Thus, the Great Recession caused a greater need for county administered social services programs including those that directly impact child welfare. Looking back at that time, the
county faced extraordinary increases in demands for food assistance, child welfare and child protection services. State laws require counties to bear the bulk of the burden to administer these services whether local tax revenues are keeping up with the increasing costs or not, and in 2007 and 2008, they were not.
Bad economic times also caused a dramatic jump in crime, especially property crimes. This resulted in serious overcrowding in the county jail. Again, the county had no choice in the matter. The majority of detainees in the County Jail were arrested and charged by Colorado Springs city police officers, but once they have been arrested, the county must pay for the full costs of their incarceration including food, medical and transportation costs.
“The Great Recession caused a greater need for county administered social services programs.”
When the 2008 budget process began, County Administrator Jeff Greene (now city chief of staff), County Budget Officer Nicola Sapp and the county attorney had already formulated a number of recommendations for the commissioners to consider in the Herculean task of developing a balanced budget. The commissioners adopted budget cuts that resulted in layoffs, early retirements and frozen salaries in all offices and departments, except the jail and the department of human services where there could be no cuts because of increased demands for services that must be provided by the county under state and federal laws.
Draconian cuts in the few areas of the county budget where the commissioners have some discretion still left a sizeable budget gap and with so many county services being mandated by either state laws or federal laws, there were very few options remaining to balance the budget. Now keep in mind, the commissioners are required by law to submit a balanced budget to the state each year.
So, with that backdrop the county was looking at all possible legal actions to submit a balanced budget and one of the very few options available was to reduce its road and bridge property tax levy and use specific ownership tax revenues to make the road and bridge fund whole. The commissioners took this action upon recommendation from senior county staff as well as the citizen-led Citizen Budget Oversight Committee.
I certainly wish that there had been more options available to us back then, but there weren’t. We had to meet the state legislative mandates to serve a rapidly increasing number of inmates in the county jail at the same time we had to meet both state and federal mandates to provide timely and accurate administration of the social safety net.