Slight increase expected in general funds

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Wheat Ridge City Council this week passed a balanced budget for 2014 that maintains the same programs and services that are currently available to residents, but also contains a key area of concern that the city must deal with in the coming years.

Next year, the city will work with a budget of just under $37 million, which includes a slight increase in general fund revenues compared to this year. So, police, public works, parks and recreation services, and other city services will see funding amounts similar to prior years.

And the city is going to able to fund recreational projects that include trail connectivity and additional bicycle lanes in parts of town.

But capital projects for next year, such as road improvements, will be funded through the city’s reserves. And that’s not good because next year is the last time the city can dip into those “rainy day” funds and get away with it.

“I think that’s the biggest negative of next year’s budget,” said City Manager Patrick Goff, in a recent interview.

The city will pull $1.7 million from reserves to fund next year’s capital improvements budget, which barely will enable it to keep up with street maintenance projects.

And because money is being pulled out of savings, the city will reach its limit when it comes to available reserves that are necessary to have in case of unanticipated events.

That means next year’s council will have to figure out how to deal with that reality, which could mean taking funds from other areas of an already tight budget or possibly asking voters for more money.

The council tried to do that this year by passing a sales and use tax hike ordinance that was expected to pump more than $6 million into capital improvement projects. However, Mayor Jerry DiTullio vetoed that measure, arguing in part that the tax hike would have made Wheat Ridge’s sales tax rate the highest among neighboring communities.

It’s possible for the city to find the money for future road projects without new revenue, but that would mean some programs, like police community outreach or parks and recreation services may have to be cut.

“We can always cut, but it depends what the citizens want their government to be providing,” Goff said. “If we’re going to start cutting, it means we’ll be cutting into programs that impact them.”

A slight increase in general fund revenues will be seen in next year’s budget, primarily through sales tax receipts collected by major grocery and liquor stores. But Goff said that most communities around the Denver metro area are seeing greater revenue increases.

“The economy is definitely coming back and other cities are seeing larger increases because people are shopping more at malls and buying retail goods that we don’t necessarily have in our community,” Goff said. “If you want to buy clothes for yourself or for kids that are going back to school, you can’t necessarily find those in Wheat Ridge, so you have to go to Arvada, Lakewood or Denver.”

The need for Wheat Ridge to diversify its sales tax base is seen through next year’s budget funding for economic development programs that provide incentives to attract new businesses to town, while retaining the storefronts that current exist.

There are some parts of next year’s budget that many residents will enjoy. The city will complete its multiuse project along Kipling that will connect the city’s trail system. There will also be money available for bike lanes along Pierce Street, which Goff said is something that the community has been asking for in recent years.

And through the Open Space fund, with help from Jefferson County dollars, the city will be able to expand Clear Creek Trail access.

The council passed the 2014 budget with some minor changes on Oct. 28, but not before Councilman Mike Stites tried to strip $250,000 in funding from Wheat Ridge 2020. The city-backed nonprofit provides marketing and other economic development services for the city, especially along 38th Avenue’s Ridge at 38 Corridor.

Stites has been critical of the organization for being “too political” on issues that include the 38th Avenue road diet.

“We have our own economic development team that should be handling (what Wheat Ridge 2020 does),” Stites said during the council meeting.

The effort to strip 2020’s funding failed. Councilman Davis Reinhart said that the council shouldn’t lose focus on passing a budget on a single issue that is controversial to some.

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