By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff

Carbondale’s annual municipal budget process began in earnest on Aug. 15, when Finance Director Renae Gustine and Town Manager Jay Harrington presented a summary of the town’s current revenue picture that reflects a relatively small growth in sales taxes and other revenues for the coming year, based on past performance.

According to a memo to the Board of Trustees (BOT), sales tax revenues (the town’s main source of income) for the general fund grew “slightly ahead of the projected 2 percent [increase] through July (June sales),” resulting in year-to-date sales tax revenues for 2017 of more than $2.3 million, just above the roughly $2.2 million collected by the same time in 2016, Gustine said.

The general fund lays out revenues and expenditures to support most of the town’s day-to-day operations through the year, and the expectation is that those revenues might come in a little higher than expected.

In fact, Gustine said, sales tax revenues so far this year have come to about 3.5 percent above revenues last year, overall.

But, she added, there is no certainty that the same level of revenues will hold through the end of the year.

“There’s no way of knowing” how the Grand Avenue Bridge project in Glenwood Springs will impact tourism and sales in Carbondale, Gustine said, adding that the town will not get any inkling about the detour’s effects on Carbondale’s revenues until late September or October, which is when collections for August and September will be on file.

So, just as they did in 2016 for the current budget year, the BOT concluded at a work session on Aug. 15 that a 2 percent sales-tax increase is the way to go for the 2018 budget.

“You never want to go too high (with revenue projections) and you never want to go too low,” Gustine told the Sopris Sun on Aug. 22. “It’s a conservative projection of revenues.”

One other unknown factor in the budgeting process, Gustine acknowledged, is the fact that a planned new City Market store on land formerly owned by the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, which was to be built this year, appears to now be on indefinite hold due to undisclosed financial issues within the Kroger corporation, which owns the City Market chain of stores.

It had become almost an article of faith among some town officials that the City Market store, which is to have a public gas station adjacent to Highway 133, would boost town revenues to an unknown but considerable extent.

The existing grocery store, located at the corner of Main and Highway 133, has long generated the greatest portion of the town’s annual revenues.

Gustine stressed repeatedly that the budget at this point is “very, very preliminary” because a lot of information has yet to be compiled, including such things as sales and other tax revenues for the entire year, income from federal mineral leases and severance taxes, and much more.

“These numbers will change, a lot,” she predicted, referring to the revenue figures.

A big part of the budget talks is whether or not the town will need to dip into its cash reserves in order to match revenues with expenses.

Gustine confirmed that the town’s fund balances — the amount of money in the town’s coffers at the start of every year — appear in good shape.

The general fund, for example, is projected to have standing reserves of more than $6.3 million at the end of 2017, an amount roughly equivalent to more than half of year of the general fund budget, in keeping with town policies.

“We’ve got a board that’s been very conservative in their spending and maintaining the level of services that we’ve all come to expect,” Gustine told The Sopris Sun.

As for the expenditure side of the budget, Gustine said that Harrington was just beginning the process of talking with the heads of the various departments at Town Hall, at meetings during which the department heads would lay out their spending priorities and proposed departmental budgets for the coming year.

Those figures will then be incorporated into a proposed budget that will be presented to the BOT, probably starting in September.

Because it is so early in the process, Gustine said, there is very little to go on concerning expenditures for the coming year.

But some indications have come out, she said, including possible changes in the town’s membership of, and expenditures toward, the energy conservation groups CLEER (Clean Energy Economy for the Region) and CORE (Community Office of Resource Efficiency), which have been helping the town reduce its “carbon footprint” by installing renewable energy technology on town buildings, businesses and homes over the past decade or so.

The BOT also has concluded that it must find money to buy new playground equipment for the local parks, equipment that will be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and will replace existing gear that is both outmoded and worn out.