Shining a Light on Boulder's Budget: The Shrinking Budget Pie

Why should Boulder’s budget be a campaign issue? 

We’re Boulder. We want to do it all - and it ALL adds up to a lot of $$$.

Over the years, our community has developed many wonderful programs and services that we depend on our city government to deliver. In addition to basic services, the “quality of life” programs we have created are what make Boulder desirable. We are also a community with a collective conscience: we want to be pro-active in solving “wicked problems” locally and globally. 

Our shrinking budget pie

Costs to deliver existing programs and services have been rising faster than revenue growth for 20+ years and each new Council adds new programs.

This base of wonderful programs was created based on expectations that sales tax revenues would continue double digit growth as they did until the late 1990s.

But as other communities and online shopping have displaced Boulder as the retail shopping hub for much of Boulder county, and our aging community is spending less on taxable goods, sales tax collection has significantly decreased.

Retail sales tax growth now hovers in the range of 2% per year - much lower than inflation.

Since 2008, the City has taken steps to control expenditures and stabilize revenues given the $98 million projected budget gap, however, the gap has continued to grow since then

In 2019, $344M in unfunded needs were identified by city departments

Most unfunded needs are NOT “wishlist” items. More than 70% are basic needs such as taking care of what we have and meeting needs from community growth.

The chart below illustrates unfunded items in the operating budget. These are ongoing needs. Examples:

  • Property/facilities primarily reflects costs for city office space and computerized management systems.

  • The low end of personnel costs reflects across the board “living wage” increases and contributions to PERA (the state retirement system) required by law. The high end reflects a council priority: costs to bring some city contractors in-house (emergency medical responders, landscape and custodial workers).

  • Police and fire represent additional staff and equipment (new and replacement).

  • Library costs are mostly staffing to deliver programs and services, plus start up costs for the NoBo branch,

  • Transportation costs include core and deferred maintenance on streets, bridges, sidewalks and paths; improvements to the local bus system: and eco passes.

  • Housing reflects the middle income housing subsidy which Council has placed on the ballot this fall. As finally adopted, this program may not require direct city expenditures although it will add debt (which may affect the ability to take on future debt).

The chart below illustrates unfunded items in the capital (major construction projects) budget. These are one time needs (although some are recurring).  Examples:

  • Property/facilities includes Alpine Balsam and related costs for two city office buildings downtown (New Britain and Park Central); improvements to the Mall and Uni Hill; purchase of Long’s Gardens and CU South (both identified as Council priorities) and the large backlog of maintenance costs on city buildings. FAM (Facilities and Asset Management) is slated to do its first master plan next year, and we can expect to see higher costs for facility maintenance as a result of this close analysis.

  • Fire and police include renovation of two fire stations the policy building.
  • Parks and recreation has maintenance and renovations needs for all recreation centers, several sports fields and many parks.
  • Transportation includes signal improvements, parking solutions for workers and electrifying the HOP buses. 
  • The only cost shown here for new OSMP is a new office complex. OSMP is completing its first master plan and still formulating projected costs for land management and trail maintenance.

Budgets are boring - we don't talk about them unless there is a crisis.

And crisis is approaching.

Library Commissioners identified financial sustainability for our library as a major focus of the 2018 Library Master Plan; the third master plan to identify the library’s funding needs (following the 1997 and 2007 master plans) without result.

Commissioners began with the assumption that the city could fund the library by reallocating resources. But as the analysis delved deeper, this assumption was proved wrong. 

The City budget has been overstretched for years and the problem is getting worse.

We need to have a broad-based community conversation about community priorities and how to fund them.


Council elections are when community conversations about priorities happen - and priorities drive budgets - so now is the time to start that budget conversation!