$29M stripped from Boulder’s budget to cope with COVID crisis

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Saturday, June 6, 2020 (Updated Monday, June 8)

Amid a global health crisis that is draining government coffers, Boulder is reducing its 2020 spending by nearly $30 million, including dozens of layoffs, a hiring freeze and blanket cuts to city departments.

The financial update, to be presented at Tuesday night’s council meeting, also offers a glimpse into the city’s new process for prioritizing spending. Much information is still lacking: Notes to council spanned a scant six pages.

But a look at two departments — open space and transportation — show that how “essential” a department’s functions are did not necessarily correlate to the level of reductions.

Author’s note: This is an incomplete look at priorities and cuts, based on information provided ahead of city council’s discussion and followup questions from Boulder Beat. Answers received over the weekend clarified the process but did not allow for additional questions. More will be revealed in updates to council and through subsequent inquiries.

The all-purpose general fund — and a new, government capital fund spun out of the GF this year — will be slashed by $13.6 million. That includes $4.6 million saved by staff furloughs and layoffs; the remaining $9 million in savings comes from delaying purchases and deferring project starts.

Examples of general fund reductions:
– $1.6M for deconstruction of Alpine-Balsam hospital (will occur in 2021 concurrent with flood mitigation)
– $750K purchase of Police Incident Command Vehicle
– $225K to replace parking pay stations
– $2.7M across all departments due to closures, service reductions etc.

Projections shared last month found that the general fund could be drained by as much as $21 million and the total budget by $41 million. March sales tax receipts showed 5.4% revenue reductions, though government-mandated business closures weren’t enacted until late in the month.

April’s tax report wasn’t prepared in time for notes sent to council ahead of the meeting but will be presented Tuesday. City leaders will also receive an updated forecast from University of Colorado economists Rich Wobbekind and Brian Lewadowski.

Sales tax losses will hit four funds the hardest. For every $1 in retail tax collected in the city, 21 cents goes to the general fund, 9 cents to transportation, 7 cents to open space and 3 cents to parks and recreation. (Boulder only gets to keep 43 cents from that dollar; the rest goes to the county, state and RTD.)

Finance staff are recommending that $3.6 million be drawn from general fund reserves, a pot of money meant to patch in gaps, usually due to emergencies. That will leave the reserves at 17% of the general fund budget. Best practice is to not let reserves drop below 15%; staff want to leave more cash in the pot since the city is prone to natural disasters such as flood and fire.

Other funds have fewer reserves to draw from. All are expected to be depleted, but only open space has reached the 20% golden standard — even the general fund reserves were a half-percentage short of that goal.

Transportation has the smallest parachute of all, with just 5% in emergency reserves, a mere $1.1 million. The transportation fund will have its spending reduced by $2.6 million: $2 million in non-personnel reductions and $0.6 million staff cuts.

Examples of transportation reductions:
– Deferred operations and planning projects such as Stanford/Table Mesa safety study and the tri-annual 2020 signalized intersection level of service study
– Median maintenance decreased 5%
– Route optimization study for HOP expansion and other transit studies

The Open space fund is being cut by $2.3 million: $0.4 million from staff and $1.9 million from services/programs.

Examples of open space reductions:
– Integrated site plans at North Foothills, Wonderland Lake, Gunbarrel
– Regional trail connections at Rocky Mountain Greenway, Eldorado to 
– Enhancement projects (Four Mile Creek crossing)

Open space and transportation funds reduced their respective expenditures by 8% each, according to city spokeswoman Shannon Aulabaugh.

A new prioritization process, called Budgeting for Resilience, places programs and employees into four categories based on how critical they are to city operations: Essential, Important, Helpful or Amenity. Department leaders were in charge of categorizing expenditures.

Budgeting for Resilience is supposed to guide spending decisions. Yet despite identical cuts, much more of the work being done by transportation was considered essential: 58% of its functions were categorized as such; just 17% of open space’s were.

A further 49% of open space work was defined as important, while 19% of transportation  fell into that category. That still results in a disparity: 77% of transportation is essential or important while 66% of open space is.

No open space employees were laid off, though 41 were furloughed and three positions will remain unfilled this year. The staffing changes represent 4% of total department workforce.

Transportation lost one-fifth of its employees to furloughs, layoffs and the hiring freeze. Two staff were furloughed, one was laid off and four non-standard term positions eliminated. A further 13 jobs will not be filled in 2020.

It is possible that the earmarking of funds rendered deeper open space cuts ineffective to the overall budget. Nearly all — 98% — of the department is paid for by dedicated sources. Legally, those dollars can’t be used for anything else.

Transportation has dedicated sources of revenue as well. It was not immediately apparent how much, since transportation falls under the public works department and sources are only broken down at the department level in the 2020 budget document.

The discretionary general fund does provide a bit more money to transportation than open space: roughly $650,000 vs. $184,661 in 2020.

Three funds that power parks and recreation were reduced by a combined $5.5 million. It’s unclear how that department’s programs and employees rank under Budgeting for Resilience. Twelve people were laid off this week, 7% of total workforce, and 19 positions are being left empty (12%).

Parks and rec, the library and housing/human services were hit hardest by furloughs: 83%, 72% and 57% of their workforces, respectively. OSMP temporarily lost 22% of staff; transportation, 23%.

Staffing changes, including extended furloughs, layoffs and a hiring freeze, will save the city $10.5 million. Deferring capital projects and other non-personnel reductions will net a further $18.9 million.

Reimbursement for COVID spending will bring in some additional dollars eventually. Officials revealed last week that Boulder County is set to receive $28 million from Colorado as part of the CARES Act, to be divvied up among local municipalities.

City council meeting 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 9. Watch online or on Channel 8.

Author’s note: This article has been updated with additional information provided by the city.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Do furloughed employees continued to be paid? If not can they collect unemployment comp?
    Difference between being furloughed and laid off?


    • Hi, Paul. Furloughed employees were not paid but they did receive benefits. Basically like unpaid vacation. Laid off employees no longer have employment. In both cases, they are eligible for unemployment benefits.

  2. Many of the employees who were furloughed do not get benefits because they are classified as hourly contract employees, instead of part time workers. A lot of the city’s furloughed workers – temps, seasonals and subs – fall into this category. This has been common practice for years in industry, but it’s sad to see the city treat people this way.

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