The Montezuma County Planning Commission will seek ideas from the public on diversifying the economy while also gathering feedback on whether the county should ask for a sales tax on the 2020 ballot.
Community meetings on the topics will be held in towns and rural communities over the next two years, said Planning Commissioner Bob Clayton during a presentation Tuesday.
The Montezuma County Commission gave its support for holding the community meetings, with the condition that economic development be explored, not just promotion of a sales tax.
Clayton said the planning board supports the idea of asking voters for a 1 to 2 percent county sales tax, which would generate an estimated $2 million to $4 million per year toward government services and community projects. The county does not have a sales tax.
“We want to reach out to people, explain our side and get input,” Clayton said.
Nearly 50 percent of the total property tax revenues collected countywide are paid by Kinder Morgan, which owns a sprawling industrial operation that pulls carbon dioxide from a large underground reservoir on the west side of the county. The gas is shipped to far away oilfields in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico for well pressurization.
County officials said the company has been a blessing for jobs and tax revenues, but long-term planning is needed on replacing that revenue when the carbon dioxide field eventually begins to play out.
Planning Commissioner Kelly Belt said a sales tax would bring in money from tourists, who use county services such as roads but do not contribute with taxes.
“The burden right now for county revenues is all on property owners; a sales tax is more fair,” he said.
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla is not supportive of a sales tax and wants to find ways to save constituents money and supporting business through “reduced development fees, cutting wasteful government spending and lowering property taxes.”
If a sales tax question were proposed, he wants language stating that whatever is raised by the tax, the same amount should be cut from property taxes by lowering mill levies.
“I think we ought to tackle, how do we put more money in their pockets instead of taking money out of them,” Suckla said.
Suckla said the county is financially healthy, and has $28 million in reserves, with $6 million available for projects. He encouraged ideas on how to spend it to benefit the community.
Commissioner Jim Candelaria agreed a sales tax would spread out the tax burden so it does not just fall on property owners. He was also open to the idea of reducing property taxes as part of the sales tax proposal.
“Let’s look at it; we have more than a year for analysis,” he said.
The county’s growth and health financial position with impressive reserves is largely due to Kinder Morgan tax revenues, said Commissioner Keenan Ertel.
“We rely on the financial input, but the eventuality is that the CO2 will end some day, and when it does, this county will take a hit,” he said.
How to compensate for that future loss includes making government more efficient, bringing in new businesses, and potentially a new sales tax, Ertel said.
Even with the windfall, the county remains fiscally conservative, officials said. When there was a $1 million budget shortfall in 2017 from a drop in oil and gas revenues, the county made department cuts to cover it, rather then dipping into reserves. They recently reduced the county vehicle fleet by 15 percent.
Suckla added, “reinventing the county” with innovative businesses is a better place to start the conversation rather than taxes.
Some ideas being passed around for increasing economic development include a USDA processing plant, building a conference center, a bio char plant that processes forest slash, commercial solar farms, hemp farms and CBD processing plants, outdoor recreation, a public beach area at McPhee Reservoir, improving broadband internet and expanding Pueblo Community College to include dormitories.
“The meetings will generate more ideas and solutions we have not thought of,” Belt said.
“I think it is a proactive approach,” Candelaria added.