It took the city of Durango just five months to pivot from a monumental tax-increase defeat to a marginal approval for higher taxes. So what happened? What convinced the voting public that a tax increase that was burdensome then is necessary now?
For starters, city officials publicly acknowledged they asked voters for too much money, over too long a time and for too many things on the November ballot. City councilors decided after hearing from community members to ask for a smaller amount, for a shorter duration and for a specific purpose.
Ballot measure 2A, which failed on the November ballot, would have increased the sales tax by 0.55% and the property tax by 5.4 mills to raise up to $7.5 million per year for the next 25 years to pay for street infrastructure, law enforcement, a new police station and other building improvements.
Ballot measure 1A, which passed on the April ballot, will increase the sales tax by 0.5% – from 7.9% to 8.4% – and raise up to $4.69 million a year for the next 10 years to pay for street infrastructure. A much smaller, much shorter and much more concise commitment.
The timing may have had something to do with the reversal. April’s ballot had two questions, both of which were city-related. Durango’s November ballot had 35 questions, which included three tax proposals – one from Durango and two from Colorado – and federal, state and county elections.
None of the tax measures on the November ballot passed.
Councilor Dick White called the November ballot “toxic.”
And the roads weren’t too bad in November. But after the above-average snowfall this winter, the roads are in rough shape. The number of potholes in the streets may have made the voting public more aware of the problem and therefore more apt to vote for a tax increase to repair them.
“We did have kind of a rough winter; I think people took that into consideration with this tax,” said Alex Hise, 18, who voted for the sales-tax increase. “They definitely took advantage of how tough a winter we had.”
April elections also have a lower turnout compared with November elections. Of the more than 12,000 people who are registered to vote in Durango, only 2,305 voted for the half-cent increase to pay for street infrastructure. Results show the proposal passed by 195 votes.
In November, 3,418 people voted for the tax increase and 5,334 people voted against it, a difference of 1,916 votes. Turnout in the November election was about 72%, said La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker, who keeps track of election data in the county, including Durango.
Studies show that off-year elections, like Durango’s most recent, have historically lower turnout compared with general elections. And the people who do turn out tend to be older. A Knight Foundation study found millennials – anyone born from 1981 to 1996, according to the Pew Research Center – vote in local elections far less often than in national elections.
One-third of April ballots were cast by people 60 to 72 years old, a cohort that makes up a little more than 10% of Durango’s population, according to Data USA, a comprehensive compilation of public information. Young people – ages 18 to 38 – made up about 16.5% of those who voted in April. Data USA shows that almost 38% of residents are 18 to 34 years old.
“Research identifies that a key barrier to greater millennial participation in local elections is trustworthy information,” according to the study “Why Millennials Don’t Vote for Mayor.” “But the research also shows that millennials are not actively seeking this information, and it will be important to reach them through their existing social networks and community affiliations.”
The city took a new tact in promoting the tax proposal this time around. Instead of having city councilors promote a YES vote on the ballot measure, a private small-issue committee championed the proposal, raised money, made signs, sent flyers, bought ads, gave interviews and, in general, promoted the tax increase, helping to explain why it was needed and how it would be spent.
A U.S. Vote Foundation study, “Fixing the Problem of Low Voter Turnout in U.S. Local Elections: A Data-driven Solution,” found research that suggests “lack of political engagement at the local level offers opportunities for politically active and well-organized interest groups to further advance their causes and be disproportionately represented by local government.”
Wendy Allsbrook Javier, 48, who has lived in Durango for 16 years, said she voted for the tax measure because “I really feel we need it.” She also voted to approve the November tax question.
“I think people blow off the small elections, but those are the ones that are closer to home,” she said. “Sometimes, I think people may have a harder time finding information.”
Dianne Johnson, 50, who has lived in Durango for five years, said she voted against the tax measure because “the money is there, they just need to reallocate it.” She also voted against the November tax question.
“I wish the city did better at spreading the word,” she said. “That would have a better turnout for people to vote. They just don’t know enough about the issues.”