The state of the county: Commissioners increasingly upbeat

Craig Meis
Craig Meis

Mesa County commissioners say they’re increasingly upbeat about the prospects for both the local economy and government operations.

While a number of indicators continue to reflect recessionary conditions, rising sales tax collections point to increased spending and economic activity. County spending on capital construction projects as well as an initiative to lower fees and streamline the development review process also should help businesses.

In the meantime, conservative budgets have positioned the county to continue providing essential services in the midst of declining revenues, including an expected decline in property values — and taxes — starting in 2012.

“I really feel optimistic about the future,” said Commissioner Janet Rowland.

Rowland and Commissioner Craig Meis offered an overview of the economy and county operations in an annual state of the county presentation. Commissioner Steve Aquafresca was sick and didn’t attend the presentation.

A number of economic indicators reflect what Rowland described as a “tough couple of years.”

Janet Rowland
Janet Rowland

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County climbed to 10.2 percent in December, the latest month for which estimates are available. At the same time, the estimated work force in the county dropped to 77,882, about the same level as December 2007.

A total of 2,902 real estate sales worth a combined $704 million were reported in Mesa County in 2010, among the lowest levels in more than 20 years. But the number of property foreclosure filings in the county climbed to 1,580 in 2010, about a four-fold increase over 2007.

A total of 348 building permits for single-family homes were issued in 2010, a number Meis said he hopes will be the lowest that indicator goes.

The county received 6,758 applications for food assistance in 2010 — more than double the level of 2007 and a number Rowland said reflects the “economic reality” many residents face.

County sales tax collections constitute a trend of a different sort with increases in each of the last four months of 2010 compared to the same months in 2009. The four months of increases followed 21 straight months of decreases. For all of 2010, county sales tax collections were down 6.42 percent, less than the 9 percent drop that had been projected, Meis said.

Rowland said rising tax revenues, a measure of increasing sales, has her feeling more optimistic about economic activity in 2011.

Meis said a number of other factors should help bolster business, including county spending on such capital construction projects as the 29 Road viaduct over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and a consolidated central services facility in downtown Grand Junction.

As part of an initiative to promote business growth, Mesa County increased the exemption for business personal property tax to $150,000, eliminating planning review fees for developers, streamlined the development review process and added flexibility to the county landscaping code.

Meis said the new development review process is two to three months shorter than the old process and offers applicants more certainty. It’s also easier for applicants to monitor the process online rather than wait in line, he added.

The county continues to support the Mesa County Workforce Center and Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction to promote workforce training and enterpreneurial activity, Rowland said.

Mesa County remains well positioned in the aftermath of the recession because of conservative budgeting, Meis and Rowland said. The county has cut spending about $18 million over the last three years to keep pace with falling revenues.

The 2011 county budget includes a 9 percent decrease in spending with the reduction of the equivalent of 44 full-time positions and no pay increases for county employees, Meis said.

The county will maintain a “healthy” fund balance through 2011, Meis said, in anticipation of what’s likely to be a decrease in assessed property values in Mesa County and, in turn, property tax revenues.

Despite decreased spending levels, the commissioners noted a number of accomplishments for Mesa County, including:

  • A partnership with Colorado West Mental Health to offer substance abuse treatment for women.
  • The construction of a new animal services building.
  • The completion of a 2.5-mile section of the Riverfront Trail near Clifton.
  • The opening of a community services building in Fruita.

Rowland credited county employees who’ve had to accomplish more with less resources. “I really think it’s important that we thank our staff.”