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Budget cuts threaten county services

The El Paso County Board of County Commissioners has been wrestling with the shortfalls in the county budget. Commissioners Sallie Clark and Amy Lathen weighed in on what the budget cuts mean for the remainder of 2008 – and 2009.Sallie Clark“The unincorporated areas will suffer more because they are dependent on the sheriff’s department for their safety and on local fire departments for wild land fires,” Clark said. “We are now in the high fire danger season and the city of Colorado Springs has only one wild land fire unit. They actually had to call in county and military units for the recent Broadmoor fire.”Clark said she predicts a “further degradation of all services; and, if no money is available, elimination of the parks department, among other things.”Many items in the county budget, including the county commissioners’ pay, are state mandated, she said. The property taxes cannot be raised more than 5 percent per year without a vote of the people. Also, although the property tax is collected by the county, a small amount actually stays in the county’s general fund. The lion’s share goes to schools.The budget shortfalls are already hitting county departments.”The county is the only regional government that provides things everyone uses; for example, the county jail houses people arrested in Colorado Springs, which has no city jail, and [it houses] illegal immigrants. El Paso County has only one deputy for each 66 inmates; whereas, the state average is one to 35.”The county coroner’s office has to sign death certificates before people can cremate a loved one or have a service for them. If the coroner cannot come to the scene of a death in a timely manner, the law officers cannot leave the scene until someone from the coroner’s office arrives.”Health and human services departments also are living with tight budgets. Clark said the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment is lacking money for inoculations for children; and there are not enough people to inspect pools, restaurants and tattoo parlors. “If a child dies of E.coli from a public pool or a soldier who got a tattoo gets hepatitis from a dirty needle, lack of inspection is the cause,” she said.The county is facing budget problems with the department of transportation as well. “We don’t even have the money to buy replacement parts for our aging equipment,” Clark said. “This winter, what will happen if we have a major snowstorm? We have 1,900 square miles and 150,000 people in our unincorporated areas.”Amy LathenCounty Commissioner Lathen represents District 2, which includes Falcon.Via e-mail, she discussed budget cuts and how they would affect rural areas in the county.”We were able to preserve the six patrol deputies and six detention deputies, which were part of the original proposed cut of $948,000 to the sheriff’s office, [so] a reduction in the current force will not at this time be realized within the rural areas of the county.”However, Lathen said that the cuts and rising fuel costs have prompted Sheriff Terry Maketa to cease patrols in the county. The sheriff has instructed his deputies to “patrol in a central location and wait for calls, instead of actively patrolling our county,” she said. Lathen said public safety is one of her top-two concerns.Reduced road maintenance and improvements is the other. “El Paso County must adequately maintain roads, and I believe that this responsibility has been lacking in District 2,” Lathen said. “Funding reductions make this bad situation worse, and I see our infrastructure continuing to decline.”How the county serves the people is going to be up to the people when they vote this fall on a tax increase. “If the costs of services and unfunded mandates continue to plague our budget, the effect will be more cuts,” Lathen said. “Quite simply, it is just a matter of what the people want to fund with their tax dollars, and I will carefully and responsibly administer those dollars regardless of how much we have to work with.”The only “Plan B” is reviewing county assets, further elimination of programs and reductions in the work force, Lathen said.]Selling land currently used for parks is a last-resort option, she said. “However, I cannot and will not promise anyone that it is forever off the table as an option.”Some officials have talked about consolidating services between the city and county. Lathen said she is open to the idea, especially for parks and planning services, some fleet facilities and possibly health services. “The huge distinction between the county and the city must be made clear,” she said. “Colorado Springs is a home rule municipality. El Paso County is an arm of the state of Colorado, receiving its authority from the state. We are dramatically limited in our local control compared to the city … creating one blanket government is not an option.

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