Sheriff car

A Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle sits on Highway 82 in the photograph from July. Sheriff Joe DiSalvo is asking for two new patrol deputies and one jail deputy in his 2020 budget request to the Board of County Commissioners. Also in the budget, Airport Director John Kinney is seeking approval for two additional sheriff’s office deputies who would be dedicated to public safety at the airport, though hired by DiSalvo. The sheriff will discuss his request during the commissioners’ work session on Tuesday.

Of requests for 26 new full-time employees that come from various Pitkin County departments, government administrators are recommending 2020 budget approval for about 12.

Twelve new full-time workers may not seem like a lot, especially since the county already has 317. Still, adding full-time staff to local government could be seen as unusual, given that County Manager Jon Peacock spent several minutes during Tuesday’s preliminary budget discussion talking about expectations of an economic “correction” — a genteel term for a mild recession — in the near future.

In other words, why would county officials be looking to add staff if the U.S. economy is due for a downturn, and also at a time when the county is projecting a decrease in sales-tax collections and construction-related revenue in 2020? In effect, would approving the new positions be setting up the new hires for potential layoffs?

At Tuesday’s meeting, Peacock spoke of how the annual budget is put together in an extremely conservative manner. Hence, the projected 2 percent decrease in sales-tax revenue in 2020, even though such collections in 2019 are expected to rise by $1.4 million, or 16 percent, above 2018’s $9.6 million.

Speaking Wednesday, Pitkin County Finance Director Connie Baker further explained the thoughts that went into shaping the 2020 preliminary budget. County commissioners will be holding budget discussions for the next two months, given that they are required by law to adopt a final budget by Dec. 15.

“A correction is something that we’ve been talking about during the budget cycle for a couple of years now,” Baker said. “The U.S. economy has had 10 years of growth, 10 years without a downturn. Typically the economy goes into cycles where you have growth for five to seven years, then you’ll have a downturn. Then you’ll have growth again and then another downturn. 

“Ten years of growth is the longest growth period on record in modern history,” she continued. “You would expect that at some point, there’s going to be a downturn. And so that’s why for the last couple of years, in preparing a budget, [Peacock] has cautioned the board that it would be normal to expect a downturn, just based on history.”

After talking with the county’s financial advisory board, the feeling that “something will come” is even stronger, Baker said. “Whether that’s 2020 or 2021, none of us know that. But there’s a stronger feeling that the U.S. markets will be heating up, and then possibly taking a dip.”

The possibility of a downturn was applied at the start of the county budget process, which involves revenue forecasts. Before anyone can figure out how much to spend, one has to determine how much is coming in, Baker said.

Peacock and Baker, in fact, presented revenue forecasts that stretch over the next five years. Based on those predictions — and accounting for the likelihood of a slight downturn — county government should be able to handle modest workforce growth, such as the addition of 12 new full-time workers in 2020, Baker explained.

“It’s a very important question: Can we afford to hire new employees, even if there’s an economic downturn?” she said. “That’s where we apply the different revenue projections, and apply increases in salaries, increases in health insurance and inflation, and look at the effect of that over five years, not just 2020. And that’s how we determine whether it’s affordable for us to go ahead and add these positions, so that even if there is a downturn, we would not have to lay off employees.”

Of course, if something bigger happens to the economy, something on par with the Great Recession, which resulted in global financial chaos for the better part of 2008 and 2009, then all expectations are off — and local government’s budgeting process becomes a bit of a bloodletting exercise. 

But Peacock said Tuesday he expects something on par with 2001’s downturn. That’s when the nation underwent a mini-recession that followed the Y2K scare and the bust of technology companies following a boom period, also known as the “Dot.com Crash.”

New positions identified

Baker provided a listing of the 12 new positions being recommended for the 2020 county budget.

Five would be sheriff’s office deputies: two for patrol, one for the jail and two for the airport.

The community development department would get one full-time employee, an administrative assistant who would split time between long-range planning and the county’s climate-action plan.

The library would receive two assistants. Another employee would be a fleet mechanic. And two more would be workers in the public health department: an operations manager and a health promotions analyst.

The 12th employee would be a risk manager.

Baker explained that the new employees would not all be paid from the same budget areas. For example, salaries for the two patrol deputies and the jailer would come from the general fund, while the pay for the two airport deputies would come from the airport’s enterprise fund.

Also, the budget plan calls for new workers in the public health department to be paid through revenue from a proposed tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products. Voters will decide that issue on Nov. 5. If the tax measure fails, county officials plan to revisit the prospect of adding employees to the public health department. The positions might be created anyway, Baker said, given that there are certain state requirements in the public-health arena and the county has to fulfill them.

There’s also the possibility for a 13th new full-time hire, she said. The county landfill likely will need a construction and demolition manager to oversee a green program that aims to reduce “C&D waste” at the facility. However, that program has not yet been officially approved by commissioners, therefore the position may not be created until sometime next year.

Need for deputies

Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Tuesday that he could use more than two new deputies for patrol and one for the jail. He’ll talk about his plans for new hires in more detail at a Tuesday work session of county commissioners.

In addition to the request for new law-enforcement personnel, DiSalvo also will be discussing a proposal to address medical and nursing needs at the jail. The county budget includes money to more than double the amount spent on such services, which are currently handled by a nurse practitioner.

According to DiSalvo, jail director Kim Vallario says that 75 percent of the jail’s inmates are clinically mentally ill. Also, the daily jail population has been averaging 18 inmates, about double the figure from around three years ago, he said.

“Their needs are increasing,” DiSalvo said of those in local custody. “The doctors who used come by and help them can’t do it anymore. We have to go with a professional medical group.”

DiSalvo said he doesn’t think there’s been an increase in patrol officers in 15 years, although he acknowledged that he doesn’t have the exact data.

And since becoming sheriff in early 2011, he’s never asked for more patrol officers, until this year.

“Calls for service are up 34 percent,” DiSalvo said. “I don’t think two [patrol officers] is enough. I think I need more than this. It may seem easy to say the demands from the community are going up, but it’s true.”

The sheriff said his officers are being called upon to work at more special events and non-emergency situations than ever before, which has resulted in overtime costs. Basically, he believes he’s currently working with a staff size that’s more akin to the number of officers who worked under his predecessor, Bob Braudis.

“I think this is the beginning of me starting to fill the staff for what it’s going to look like in the 21st century,” DiSalvo added.

In all, Pitkin County's 2020 proposed expenditures — which include the general fund, enterprise funds and all other areas — are currently estimated at $142.29 million, a 3.8 percent decrease from 2019's total.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.