State of the county: prospects improving

Phil Castle, The Business Times:

Craig Meis
Craig Meis, Mesa County Commissioner

Having served during some of the best and subsequently worst of economic times in Mesa County, Craig Meis says he’s heartened by indications conditions are slowly improving again.

“As a community, we have cause for optimism,” said Meis, a Mesa County commissioner since 2005.

Sales tax revenues have increased even as jobless rates and property foreclosure filings have decreased, Meis said.

Meanwhile, the county continues to support economic development and promote a nurturing business climate even as it invests in capital projects. And the county remains fiscally sounds thanks to conservative budgeting, Meis added. “We’re still taking steps to make sure the county stays that way.”

Meis talked about the prospects for both the local economy and county operations during the latest state of the county presentation.

County sales tax revenues climbed almost 7 percent in 2011 compared to 2010 after a 6.4 percent drop in revenues in 2010 and a nearly 21 percent drop in 2009. “We hope this is a good sign,” Meis said.

The seasonally unadjusted jobless rate jumped a half point to 9 percent in Mesa County in December, the latest month for which estimates are available. That rate remains more than a point below December 2010, however.

Property foreclosure filings fell almost 20 percent in 2011.

A number of other economic indicators reflect ongoing challenges, though, Meis said. The number of building permits issued in Mesa County has declined three straight years even as applications for food assistance has increased three consecutive years.

In terms of county operations, Meis cited a list of accomplishments for 2011 and a list of goals for 2012.

A number of capital projects were completed last year, he said, including a 29 Road overpass over the Union Pacific railroad and Interstate 70 Business Loop in Grand Junction, improvements at the Mesa County Fairgrounds and a pedestrian bridge erected as part of a Riverfront Trail that ultimately will connect Palisade and Fruita.

In addition, a central services facility has opened in downtown Grand Junction that houses several county departments. The 53,000 square-foot building includes in one location offices for the clerk and recorder, public works and code compliance divisions as well as the health department food assistance program and its community food bank.

In addition to the convenience of a central location, the facility will save the county an estimated $260,000 a year in rent that had been spent on other buildings.

The county offered more services online in 2011 as well as implemented a new system to track environmental health inspections, Meis said.

Ridership on the Grand Valley Transit bus system topped 1 million in 2011, while criminal felony filings continued to drop, he said.

As for 2012, Meis said the county will continue to support the workforce training and economic development efforts of such organizations as the Business Incubator Center, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, Grand Junction Economic Partnership and  Mesa County Workforce Center.

The county also will strive to remove obstacles to business growth — “in essence, getting out of the way of business,” he said.

Additional investments in capital projects are planned for 2012 not only to take advantage of lower construction costs, but also to promote job growth, Meis said. “It makes sense to do infrastructure right now.”

The county government itself remains  “fiscally healthy,” Meis said, because of curtailed operations and conservative budgeting. “Your county government today is smaller and more efficient than it was a couple of years ago.”

Meis attributed that change to a county staff that’s been asked to do more with less. “We know this has been a challenging time for staff.”