After some tense discussions, Montezuma County commissioners agreed to spend $5 million on road-paving projects in 2020, and boost the coroner’s budget by $19,000 for certified deputies.
Of the additional road funding, $1.25 million will come from the road department’s reserve, and $3.75 million will come out of the county’s general reserve of $13.7 million.
An ongoing debate on how much to keep in reserve has divided commissioners at times.
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla argued it is too high. He has been pushing to spend $5 million on road projects in 2020 to benefit taxpayers.
“To keep (the money in reserves) is ripping off the taxpayer,” he said. “If we don’t spend it on the people, we should give it back.”
Commissioner Jim Candelaria agreed that upgrading roads is important but suggested upgrades be spread over a five-year period based on a plan submitted by the road department. He was hesitant to drop the reserve by $3.7 million in one year, preferring to try and negotiate a lower amount.
Other areas of the county also need improvements, such as the fairgrounds, jail, senior center, and aging vehicle fleet, Candelaria said.
He defended a strong reserve because “it will be relied on to support all county departments” in case of an emergency or extreme budget shortfall in the future.
But Suckla was adamant on the road spending, accusing Candelaria of “hoarding money” and calling the five-year road plan “stupid.”
Commissioner Keenan Ertel has also been hesitant to drop the reserves by so much in a single year, but was convinced to do so at the budget workshop, saying “the money has been just sitting there growing and growing and not being used. Let’s grab these roads before we lose them and it really costs you.”
A motion by Suckla to spend the $5 million on paving roads, passed 3-0.
Road Department Supervisor Rob Englehart said the additional funding will allow for about 30 miles of newly paved roads.
“Paving them saves maintenance costs in the long run because they hold up so much longer,” he said.
The asphalt overlay has more longevity than a chip-seal, and can handle heavy traffic and the changing weather conditions better, he said.
Which roads will be improved with the asphalt paving is being evaluated and will be based on traffic counts and road condition, Englehart said. The work will be put out to bid in the spring, and the work will be done over the summer and fall of next year.
Coroner gets backupMontezuma Coroner George Deavers received commissioner approval for $19,000 in the 2020 budget to pay for deputy coroners.
Trained and certified deputies will allow Deavers to take two weekends off per month, and have an annual week vacation, he said.
As coroner, Deavers is responsible for handling 125 deaths per year, including car accidents, hospital and unattended deaths, suicides, and overdoses.
Commissioner Keenan Ertel at first was critical of the request and said if Deavers wants time off, he should pay his deputies out of his own salary. Deavers responded that no other Category 3 coroners office does that in the state.
“What happens if I get sick or injured? There is nobody to cover, and you have to have a coroner,” Deavers said. “The stuff I see, you need time off to clear your head.”
With the additional funding, Deavers will train and certify three to five deputies and pay them $150 per death, on a contract basis. He said the state has been pushing for deputy coroners to have more training and certifications. The county coroner responds to an average of 2.5 deaths per week.
All the deputy coroner funds may not be spent, Deavers said. When he takes two days off and there are no deaths, then there are no deputy contract costs.
The coroner’s office is upgrading its lab to handle autopsies, county officials said. The hope is that autopsy fees will help cover the coroner’s future budget needs. At the request of the county, Deavers said he will reach out to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe for budget assistance on coroner services conducted there.
The commissioners have been in a giving mood.
In October, Suckla sought suggestions from the community on how to spend down some of the reserves.
In November, the commissioners approved a $315,000 budget increase request from Sheriff Steve Nowlin. It allows for three additional full-time patrol deputy positions and three additional full-time jail deputy positions.