Pencil sharpeners at the Larimer County courthouse will be working overtime during the next few months as officials crunch numbers and ideas for dealing with a looming budget shortfall brought on by the cost of running the county jail.
Soaring operating costs at the facility are expected to exceed sales-tax revenue and reserve funds earmarked for the jail by 2009, officials say. Other sources of revenue will be needed to fill the funding gap, possibly at the expense of other county services.
The gap is likely to keep widening as jail expenses, which have been going up 8 percent a year, outpace tax revenue and its increases of 2 percent to 3 percent per year, budget manager Bob Keister told county commissioners last week.
A 0.2 percent sales tax approved by voters in 1997 to expand and operate the jail is scheduled to expire at the end of 2014. If that revenue goes away, the county will have to find about $15.8 million to run the jail in 2015, Keister said.
County Manager Frank Lancaster said he plans to offer recommendations on how to address the shortfall before the commissioners by April. Other elected officials will be brought into the discussion because their offices could be affected by budget shifts.
"Everything is on the table" when it comes to meeting the financial crunch, Lancaster said, including seeking voter approval of extending the 0.2 percent sales tax, seeking an additional tax or eliminating some county services.
Commissioner Kathay Rennels said property taxes are not popular with voters, but a sales tax might be more palatable. The purpose of the tax and the financial consequences of not approving it must be clear to voters, she said.
"They will support a sales tax if they know what it's for," she said last week.
In an interview, Commissioner Randy Eubanks said he plans to study the county's overall budget to get a clearer sense of how much funding goes to law enforcement and the criminal justice system. He also plans to review the budgets of each county department to see where costs could be reduced.
Some departments, such as The Ranch, the county's fairgrounds and special events complex, bring in revenue but still need subsidies to break even, he said.
"I want to push for a better way of accounting so we can pull out and see the areas where we are bleeding," he said.