Montezuma County’s proposed sales tax to fund broadband internet dominated the discussion during the commissioners’ first quarterly community meeting on Monday.
Forty people showed up at the county annex building, and about a dozen questioned the commissioners on issues including the proposed internet sales tax, weed control, Phil’s World expansion, and tenets of democracy and socialism.
The 1 percent sales tax would fund a fiber-optic broadband utility, which is expected to cost $39 million and generate $1.7 million to $2 million per year in revenue. The tax would apply to most goods purchased in the county and in Cortez, Mancos and Dolores. Registered voters in the county and Ute Mountain Ute reservation may vote on the ballot issue in the November general election.
“It will bring opportunity for business, for education and for telemedicine,” Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek said at Monday’s meeting. “Broadband has become the fourth utility, and essential for our community to grow and thrive. The longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.”
Sheek said high-speed internet would attract and retain large companies like Osprey, which has been in business in Montezuma County since 1990. High-speed internet also would help home-based businesses, which, she said, represent 20 percent of all businesses in the county.
Other community members balked at the $39 million price tag and use of revenue bonds to finance the project.
“When you borrow money, you become a servant to the lender, and our kids and grandkids have to pay it back,” said Debbie Boyd. “If we want something, let’s fundraise the money and buy it. With sweat equity, it will be more appreciated.”
One resident said that people want more detail about the proposed broadband network, such as how it would work, the cost to customers, and the terms of the tax, said one resident.
Commissioner Keenan Ertel said the tax would sunset after a certain period of time. The $1.5 million to $2 million generated per year would be earmarked to fund high-speed internet infrastructure and pay off the project’s debt service.
More technical infrastructure details are forthcoming, officials said.
The internet project hinges on a vote to opt out of Colorado Senate Bill 152, which prohibits municipalities from creating their own broadband networks. Both the SB 152 and sales tax issues would be on the November ballot.
The county wouldn’t be in the business of offering internet service. Instead, the county would to build the high-speed network through a broadband authority, then let private industry use it to provide competitive services under an open-access system.
“But if the voters don’t opt out of SB 152, the project is null and void,” Ertel said.
“We’re not making the decision,” added commissioner James Lambert. “It is our obligation to ask the voters to make the decision.”
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said improved internet service for the county would “propel the community forward,” but if there were a red flag, the county could change its plan.
Jim Mahlberg said he felt a few “special interests” would benefit from the plan at the cost of many. He initiated debate on the issue of whether voting on a sales tax is fair or democratic.
If 51 percent vote yes, 49 percent end up paying for something they didn’t want, he said.
“Asking at the cash register to volunteer funds would be truly democratic,” Mahlberg said. “I’d consider a more free market solution – not one that borders on socialism.”
Sheek responded that the general public pays for other services such as the hospital, roads, schools and emergency services.
“We do what is best for our community,” she said.
Bud Garner, of Cortez, was concerned about long-term maintenance costs of the internet project. He said a sufficient internet network already exists, and he shouldn’t have to pay for improved internet service for someone else.
Wade Foster said he sees internet services as a public utility. He said the tax would promote free enterprise and “provide a cushion against the ups and downs of the economy.”
More specific information will become available soon at connect4.org, a website dedicated to the broadband project. Community presentations on the project are also planned.
Bicycles, traffic, parking and weedsMonica Nowlin, a rancher off County Road N, expressed concerns about increased traffic if Phil’s World is expanded to nearby Bureau of Land Management land.
“It’s a single-lane road,” she said. “The property owners need to be consulted on changes to that road and if a new parking lot goes in.”
Bill Taylor urged the county to control noxious weeds on private property. He suggested a notice be issued to those who don’t control weeds, and if there is not compliance, the county should control the weeds and send the property owner the bill.
Another resident wanted improved enforcement of parking areas for the disabled at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds.
Participants seemed grateful for the chance to air their views outside the scheduled commissioner meeting, which are held during business hours on Monday.
“This is the first time in 20 years something like this was done,” Taylor said.