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Weld County budget of $255 million for next year approved

By Analisa Romano, Greeley Tribune, Colo.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dec. 12--Weld County commissioners on Wednesday approved a $255.8 million budget for 2014, relying on even higher revenue from oil and gas development.

But the budget also includes components of a plan that would help mitigate the volatility of the industry.

Commissioners last year introduced a five-year plan that would set aside as much as $23 million per year from oil and gas property tax revenues to invest in things that would strengthen county services and diversify the local economy.

Their points of interest are in infrastructure, technology and innovation, staff training and development, and economic development, as well as a fluctuating reserve to deal with the highs and lows of energy prices.

Oil and gas assessed values this year were up by 15 percent, bumping up the county's entire assessed value by 9.3 percent.

Oil and gas next year will account for 55 percent of all property tax revenue and Weld County is on pace to produce nearly 80 percent of the entire state's oil output this year, said Don Warden, Weld County's budget manager.

Noble Energy, one of the two largest oil and gas companies in Weld County, has said it expects to triple its oil and gas production in Weld over the next five years.

That is why the county next year will dedicate another $10 million to its Contingency Reserve Fund, bringing the county's total contingency contributions to about $99 million -- one of the highest in the nation, Warden has said. About $40 million is set aside specifically for oil and gas fluctuation and disasters such as the recent flood.

Weld commissioners touted the fact that the county continues to have no short- or long-term debt and no sales tax, and the mill levy will remain unchanged, at 16.8 mills.

Commissioners said they had hoped to lower the mill levy for next year, but the county's up-front costs for flood repair prevented them from doing so.

Warden said the total for flood infrastructure repairs could come to $20 million, although Weld County will eventually be reimbursed for 75 percent of those costs by FEMA and another 12.5 percent by the state, leaving the cost to the county at $2.5 million.

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"It is very gratifying to sit here and pass this budget in (light) of the challenges we have faced" with the flood, said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway.

Weld Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said she is proud of how the county handled its flood response, opening all closed roads by Nov. 1 with money to spare.

"I think it's pretty phenomenal, where we are at in this county," she said.

In a budget report to county commissioners, Warden said next year's and future budgets must embrace an "era of change," which the strategic plan also aims to address.

He said technological advancements and other developments mean the county's workforce must be prepared for residents who expect a more transparent and readily accessible government.

As a result, the county will stop outsourcing information technology services and hire a new chief information officer to oversee technology advances and communications across the county, Warden said.

The 2014 budget includes a number of other highlights:

--Seven new positions with the county's North Jail Complex at 2110 O St. in Greeley, which will allow the Sheriff's Office to use 54 additional beds. Weld County has been planning a 377,000-square-foot expansion at the jail complex, with plans to start construction in 2017. The additional beds allow the county to delay construction until the 2018-2020 timeframe.

--Net costs for the county's dispatch center will increase by $2.2 million, thanks to the decision this year to make the city of Greeley a paying customer of the center instead of a joint operator. Now, all of the personnel at the dispatch center are Weld County employees.

--Weld County'sDepartment of Human Services is expecting a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in Medicaid caseloads due to the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that citizens apply for Medicaid to be eligible for services under the new health exchange. The department is hiring more people and training staff in anticipation of the increase.

--The county is also anticipating health insurance rates for employees to increase by 8 percent next year. All employees will get a 2.5 percent salary increase, as well as step increases for longevity and performance.

--The Public Works budget is up by more than $14 million over last year, largely to pay for heavy hauling traffic, safety issues and other challenges brought on by oil and gas exploration.

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--The county will add $10 million next year to the Weld County Retirement Plan, which has been underfunded since 2008, when the recession hit, Warden said. When the fund was overflowing in the 1980s, commissioners stopped paying the administrative costs, at about $1 million per year. This would reimburse the retirement plan for the years that there wasn't enough money in the General Fund, he said.

--Two more planning positions will be added to handle the workload for even more development countywide.

--A number of actions will be implemented that fall under innovation, technology or workforce development in the county's strategic plan, such as a countywide training program and a new training position and an electronic system for documents in the Department of Human Services.

___

(c)2013 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)

Visit the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.) at www.greeleytribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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