News Flash

Arapahoe County News

Posted on: February 5, 2020

Commissioner Kathleen Conti: The real costs of unfunded mandates

Commissioner Kathleen Conti headshot

When I was a state representative, I was talking one day to the mayor of Littleton and the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder. They told me that they were “counting down the days until the legislative session was over.” When I asked why, their response was something I’d later appreciate as a county commissioner: “So they can’t do anything else to us!” 

They were referring to bills that imposed “unfunded mandates” on cities and counties. And even though I realized the negative financial effect these proposals had on my district, and thus voted “no” on all of them, they still got enough support to become law. 

Now, as our state legislature convenes for another session, I too find myself counting down the days until the session is over, largely because of unfunded mandates. These are laws or regulations passed by the federal or state government that require state and local governments to implement certain actions—without providing the funding that would help fulfill the requirements. 

If only there were a state statute or an executive order from the Governor saying, “NO UNFUNDED MANDATES ON LOCAL GOVERNMENTS.” In 2020 that means all counties will hold a Presidential Primary Election in March, in addition to the state primary in June and the General Election in November. The March primary will allow us to be part of the Super Tuesday story, which sounds cool until you hear the price tag: a total cost to Arapahoe County of $1.9 million. 

And these aren’t the only unfunded mandates the County will have to address this year: 

  • Last year Senate Bill 191 required jails to release prisoners within four hours of being booked, which isn’t always possible given the number of inmates and limited space within our aging and overstrained booking and release center. Regardless, the law forced the County to hire an additional seven sheriff’s deputies to meet the new requirements. The cost: $675,000. 
  • The state also is considering approving new requirements for how updates should be made to commissioner district boundaries following the 2020 Census. This legislation only impacts three counties—i.e., it’s not a statewide concern—and this solution in search of a problem would force us to implement a cumbersome and unnecessary process for a cost of nearly $100,000. 

As the old saying goes, “A million here and a half-million there, and before you know it you’re talking about real money!” These unfunded mandates continue to add additional financial burdens to our already strapped County. 

To give you an idea of our current fiscal condition, during our 2020 budget process, departments asked for a total of 74.50 new general funded positions. These requests stem from our desire to meet the needs of the County’s booming population. But because of the County’s TABOR cap, we could only fill 14 of them, half of which were sheriff’s deputies mentioned above. Similarly, our Clerk and Recorder’s office wanted to evaluate the feasibility of providing residents another motor vehicle location in southeast Aurora, but our current budget was too restrained for us to even study the best way to do so. 

There are tough choices ahead for all of us as we determine how best to provide the services residents have come to expect within our fiscal realities. Addressing unfunded mandates is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

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