Despite the word recession ricocheting around coffee shops, bars, and hiking trails, Boulder County has and will continue to outperform the state and national economies, according to the 44th annual economic forecast released earlier this month from CU.
While that may sound optimistic, outperforming a failing economy doesnt necessarily mean doing well. It just means not doing as poorly.
While the national unemployment rate (as of October, 2008) hit 6.5%, the highest projected rate for 2009 in Colorado will hover around 6.4%. Analysts predict Colorado will lose about 4,300 jobs in the coming year, with most of those jobs outside Boulder County. The reason: Boulders diversity of employers from aerospace and biotechnology to renewable energy and organic products.
But statistics add little comfort to city officials who have to plan ahead while feeling the pinch of the present. And yet, many seem to find the silver dollar lining in a cloudy economic forecast.
The Blue Ribbon Commission, established to examine city funding and expenditures, says by the year 2030 Boulder could experience a funding shortfall of between $90 million and $130 million. That is significant, says Mayor Shaun McGrath, so the city council is being proactive now and addressing the problem in a number of ways.
The first steps were taken in the voting booths this fall when the city asked residents to extend a sales tax that was set to expire in two years. They city also asked voters to de-bruce some of the property taxes.
Under the Tax Payers Bill of Rights (TABOR), the city was required to give back some of the property taxes we took in. But the law allows for cities to debruce, or to keep the taxes, if local voters say we can.
Both measures passed muster, giving the city much needed revenue sources.
McGrath says the city is downsizing as painlessly as possible, too.
As we have vacancies in our city government, were going to hold off on filling those jobs except for critical positions.
That means no job cuts, just more work spread around the people still employed. In addition, McGrath says the council has asked departments to cut $800,090 from the 2008 general expenditures to prepare for job loss and financial stress.
And looking at 2009, we asked that we take a phased spending approach.
Even with a projected increase in revenue for 2009, McGrath says he wants to err on the side of caution. Rather than go down the road as if the [money is already in the coffers], we want to take it slowly. If indeed we realize those increases in revenue, then we can adjust our expenditures accordingly.
To date, city expenditures include the usual police, fire, municipality utility costs. And for Boulder, it also includes investments in green building and renewable energy.
Were in the process of building solar panels at our water treatment facility, which will provide 25% of the plants energy use.
The city also boasts an economic vitality program, which provides the city manager with funds to offer incentives to the citys primary employers.
We want to be proactive in retaining important employers in the community, but on top of that, we put a Boulder twist on it.
The city requires that in order for businesses to qualify for the tax rebates or incentives, they must meet criteria that include goals such as paying a living wage, showing commitment to environmental sustainability and providing eco-passes for employees.
The innovative program won recognition this year from the International Economic Development Council.
Thats not the only award for the city this past year. In alignment with green initiatives, Boulders long running bike program picked up a platinum medal from the American League of Bicyclists as the third city ever to attain such a high ranking.
Weve had the gold medal for a number of years, says McGrath, but the honor puts Boulder in elite company with Portland, Oregon and Davis, California.
McGrath says the bike program is just a spoke in the citys alternative energy movement. In March of 2008, Xcel Energy and its partners announced they were investing up to $100 million into a program to make Boulder the first smart grid city in the world.
Beginning in 2009, Xcel hopes to begin assessing the technologies for the smart grid. Its an exciting endeavor for McGrath.
As a consumer today, we dont get any price signals about energy use. Its all averaged out. But with a smart grid, Xcel can send out signals so we can program a dishwasher to come on at night when its cheaper. And saving money anywhere possible is paramount in this economy.
From 2000 through 2007, Longmonts population grew 16.25%, the number of jobs within the city increased 3.24%, and its unemployment rate remained very low 2.90%, according to simplyhired.com and bestplaces.net.
Fast forward one year and the population growth is flat, and unemployment remains about half the national average even though the city shows a job loss rate around 39%.
Not great, but still beating out the rest of the country. And while thats something to celebrate, theyre not breaking out the bubbly just yet.
The most significant things were going to be dealing with as a community in 2009 is how strong we will be financially because of two factors, says Longmont Mayor Roger Lange.
One is sales tax revenue and the second is the lack of construction going on that has generally been robust in the past.
Part of the citys income derives from use tax a tax on lumber and construction goods.
Two and three years ago, we approved more than 1,000 residential building permits. Now were down to 200 annually,
Lange explains before adding his optimistic twist: A good side to the slow down in construction is that we dont have as large an inventory of unsold homes as we used to have. Lange estimates the average time to sell a home is six months, compared with 12 months a year ago.
Having less money coming in always creates an uncomfortable situation, but Lange says Longmont has positioned itself well. So far, the city isnt planning any job cuts to make up for an expected shortfall. Like Boulder, weve been able to keep the employees we have, though we havent filled vacant positions.
Also like Boulder and other cities in the county, Longmont is focused on growing the business community. Were doing a decent job of attracting primary employers not sizeable ones, but nonetheless, our primary employment sector seems to be doing fairly well compared to what it could be.
Only one of Longmonts large employers made cutbacks this year; Butterball slashed 66% of its workforce amounting to 600 jobs.
When it comes to creating jobs and building up the sales tax revenue stream, Lange says the focus, naturally, turns to retail.
One of the biggest things we need to do for financial viability is to provide retail shopping opportunities for our citizens so they dont leave town to purchase goods.
Lange realizes theres a fair amount of leakage going on as people head to Broomfield (Flatiron Crossing) and Loveland for high end stores. To combat the situation, the city council is working on updating Twin Peaks Mall.
Those updates will likely include energy efficient options.
Were doing as much as we can in that arena, Lange says, adding that Longmont is fairly progressive when it comes to promoting renewable energy for homeowners and businesses. Taking action now will save people money down the road and improve the overall quality of life, which fits perfectly with Langes optimistic M.O.
Sure, the economy is on everyones mind, but for Nederlands mayor, there are more immediate issues to contend with.
Martin Cheshes is relative newcomer to Nederland, arriving just four-and-a-half years ago, and a newcomer to politics as well. A veteran of the Foreign Service, he became the mayor of Nederland this past year a decision he says was decided for him.
A couple years ago, one of the town board members asked me to run for the board. I said no. This year, I said maybe Ill run. Then in late January, the local school held an event that I attended and people came up to me and said, hey, I hear youre running for mayor.
The rumor mill seemed to grind out a pretty clear path because a few weeks after being told his destiny, the board made a decision Cheshes didnt like so he agreed to toss his hat into the ring.
It had to do with parking, he recalls.
They wanted to collect money for a parking fund. They said the rates would be $10,000 per parking space for a new building. In a town like this where youre trying to attract new business, where this building is going to need five to 10 spaces at $10-grand a piece, well, thats the surest way to keep people from even considering Nederland as a place to come.
So he put the brakes on that idea focusing instead on attracting new business in a responsible way.
I want to see sensible change and by that I mean development not a McDonalds on every street corner but new businesses and new housing.
We had a pharmacy close down. It would be nice to find someone who wants to have a pleasant existence in a nice town and open up the kind of businesses we need.
Nederland is the kind of small town that can support a diverse business community; it is home to about 1,400 people with more than half the households reporting earnings of $60-thousand or more.
Putting aside his long term goals, Cheshes realizes he has to spend his energy on more immediate, pressing issues.
In June, we had a break in the pipe of the main water storage tank. We were losing gallons and almost ran out of water up here.
By fall, voters approved a $6.9 million debt and payment schedule to fix the problem. They also felt an immediate pinch in their wallets.
We had to increase what people are paying for water by more than 100%. Cheshes says that was the only way to generate enough money to pay for the new wastewater treatment plant without turning to tax hikes.
But its not all doom and gloom. The last time water rates were raised in Nederland was back in 1992.
Nobody wanted to bite the bullet. We ended up subsidizing the water system illegally and weve been dinged by the last four audits saying we couldnt keep doing that or wed be out of compliance.
Now, Cheshes is turning his focus on fighting Mother Nature. The pine beetle has made its way to the Front Range creating fire hazards for Nederland.
In the next few months, the town will discuss the best place to build a community biomass sort yard where all Boulder county residents can bring their infested tree branches and wood for disposal.
The stakes may not be as high as resolving diplomatic issues in the Foreign Service, but, Cheshes says, hes ready to dig in and give the mayoralty all hes got, even if hes not perfect at the job.
I learn a lot every week. I make some mistakes. So what?