Summit County, town governments expecting heavy hits to finances during shutdown
DILLON — Impacts from the coronavirus pandemic have rippled into almost every aspect of life, affecting the way members of the community work, socialize, recreate and more.
And while almost all business owners and residents have felt the financial sting of widespread shutdowns as efforts continue to slow the spread of the virus, the county’s government entities are also preparing for severe hits to their revenue streams.
In total, the county’s governments are projecting more than $30 million in lost revenue this year as a result of the pandemic, and many officials said full recovery from the crisis could take years.
“This is the most dire circumstance we’ve ever faced in our community, in my time with the town or any time that I’m aware of,” said Brian Waldes, finance director for Breckenridge. “Losing over 30% of your excise fund is obviously troubling, and when you consider that there’s a very real chance that number increases, it’s gravely concerning. You struggle to wrap your brain around it at times.”
Summit County likely will see a less severe short-term impact compared with local towns, largely because its biggest revenue source is property taxes as opposed to sales tax. Summit County Finance Director Marty Ferris is projecting $8.5 million in lost revenue for the county, including $2 million in the general fund and $4 million in the transit fund.
But with more than 46% of revenue in the county’s general fund coming through property taxes, the impact to county operations could be long lasting depending on how property values hold up during the pandemic. If valuations take a hit, it could be awhile for the county to recover.
“With (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights) when valuations are going up, the county and other property tax entities are limited in how much of that growth they can get,” Ferris said. “When the economy tanks, it will go down as far as it can go. If a mill levy generated $1 million this year, and the economy drops, and it goes down to $700,000 or whatever that number might be, there’s nothing in the law now that allows us to recoup that. We just have to take that loss. It becomes the new base, and you start over from there. …
“It’s a big deal. We saw it back in ’08 and ’09, when there was a downturn in the economy. We lost a whole lot of property taxes. And from 2008, it took until 2020 to get back to the level of property taxes we had for general operating.”
The county is already looking at money-saving opportunities to help cut into the shortfall, including taking advantage of fuel savings while the Summit Stage was shut down, delaying vehicle purchases for nonpublic safety related operations, and cutting other capital improvement projects at the landfill and other county facilities. Though, Ferris said the savings aren’t expected to come close to covering the losses.
At the town level
Local towns are primarily funded through sales tax revenue, and they’re all expecting to see the notable hits as soon as March and April sales tax numbers begin rolling through in May. And spending in the county has dropped dramatically as a result of the shutdowns.
All of the county’s government entities noted that a strong financial start to the year in January and February will help to serve as something of a buffer against revenue losses, and some have excess revenue above 2019 projections to ease the blow. But each town is anticipating major shortfalls by the end of the year.
Based on rough estimates from each town’s finance department, Breckenridge ($11.2 million), Frisco ($5.4 million), Silverthorne ($5.2 million) and Dillon ($3 million) are set to lose out on almost $25 million in revenue, but each department stressed those numbers could change quickly.
Each town has an emergency fund included in its budget, and the COVID-19 response would certainly qualify for withdrawals if and when officials decide the time is right. But in the meantime, cost-saving measures have been put in place throughout the county.
“It’s just very disheartening to have employees who in normal circumstances are willing to work, but knowing we just can’t operate safely for our guests or employees right now,” said Laura Kennedy, Silverthorne’s finance director. “It’s a very unfortunate situation. We’ve had to furlough our part-time employees, and we did a merit increase freeze immediately. It’s just a pretty grim financial situation all around.”
In addition to furloughing employees, Silverthorne has had to push back a number of capital projects, including postponing budgeted security and ADA accessibility improvements on town buildings, art installations, trail work and more.
Breckenridge has freed up about $6 million in earmarked funds by pushing employee raises and training, and from cuts by partner organizations in the Breckenridge Tourism Office, BreckCreate and the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. Waldes also noted the town already has planned to reduce its capital expenditures by $5.5 million from 2021 through 2023.
Frisco’s Finance Director Bonnie Moinet said Frisco officials have tasked staff in each department to identify which projects are essential and which can be deferred without impacting necessary operations. Moinet said the town is considering delaying up to $2 million in capital projects along with a 10% reduction of operational expenses.
Dillon has a new contingency plan expected to be ready on Friday, May 1, outlining potential cuts, according to Finance Director Carri McDonnell. But the town already has made major adjustments to its capital improvement schedule, including pushing back the next phase of Town Park improvements and about $800,000 in street overlays in addition to other measures like hiring and wage-increase freezes.
“I would say that we’re pretty conservative, so we have quite a bit in reserves and savings,” said McDonnell, voicing a sentiment shared by the county’s other government entities. “We have ways to control spending, and we just instituted those right away so that we were prepared. It’s always a concern, but it’s something we think we can address as we move forward. We just have to stay on top of the numbers, help the business community when we can, and we think we can weather this.”
A new normal
While it remains to be seen just how severe the financial impact of the pandemic will end up being on local governments, officials agree that the recovery process will be lengthy.
When things do eventually open, there likely will be a slow ramp up of activity, even at some of the county’s major amenities, as residents and visitors continue to recover financially themselves and get comfortable gathering again. That means the events and amenities towns typically rely on to drive revenue might not be producing the numbers they’re used to.
Many officials are expecting to see some semblance of normalcy this summer but with a very different look. Residents could see amenities return but with reduced capacity at the Dillon Amphitheater for shows, farmers market stands spaced apart and staggered rental times at the marinas among other measures.
“I think all of us in the county are anticipating this is going to be a slow return,” Moinet said. “All of our revenue sources are going to be impacted and most likely decreased over the next several months at the very least. … But from what I’m seeing, there’s quite a bit of collaboration as far as the towns rallying together to figure out how to have events and do summer activities outside of the norm.”
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