“Property tax increase” are words guaranteed to get a voters’ attention. And La Plata County commissioners are asking for one - again - to repair, widen and maintain county roads and bridges.
The point has been belabored: the county coasted for years on high times for oil and gas production; now the revenue shortfall has left the coffers dry as the population grows, at an annual rate of about two percent, alongside expectation for quality infrastructure.
Historically, revenue from oil and gas production has overshadowed residential, commercial, agricultural and other property tax revenue sources, peaking above $16 million in 2010. In 2017, those revenues are expected to barely surpass $4 million, falling below residential property tax revenues.
On Nov. 8, voters will consider a property tax increase of up to 2.4 mills, which could be adjusted annually and would sunset in 10 years. A “yes” vote would effectively increase the current mill amount dedicated to roads and bridges (0.71) by 338 percent. It would raise about $40 million for the county over 10 years, enough to tackle 12 road reconstruction projects over 24 miles, 32 miles of asphalt paving at 12 locations and 11 bridge and intersection projects, outlined in a 10-year capital improvement plan.
What that means for voters’ pocketbooks is an annual property tax increase from about $271 to $347 for a home assessed at $400,000.
Commissioners are making their pitch by meeting with voters throughout the county. And an issue committee registered with the state, which will increase its outreach efforts in the three months left before the election, is raising money for the cause.
A ride along county roads will reveal plenty of cracked and potholed infrastructure, unpaved roads that withstand heavy traffic, and narrow thoroughfares.
But voters should assess the damage with their own eyes, and decide for themselves if it merits a spike in property tax, which at its current rate of 8.5 mills is the fourth lowest in Colorado, behind the 18.3 mills of Archuleta County, 14.2 of Montezuma County and 19.8 of San Juan County.
“There’s a paradigm shift that has to do with the Old West versus the New West and urban versus rural,” said Doyle Villers, county road and bridge maintenance superintendent since 1995. “The old rural mentality is that there might not be the same standard for county roads, but that’s changing. Secondly, we have an aging population, and county roads are key to getting emergency services access, whether it’s an ambulance or fire protection.”
The capital improvement plan prioritizes the projects in each of the four road districts, which cover Bayfield, Durango, Ignacio and the county’s west side, in three phases, the first phase encompassing the most pressing projects.
Among them is County Road 510, a gravel roadway that sees 1,000 vehicles daily because it runs east to west, with subdivisions to the north and south. The road is proposed for paving.
Others have rough surface conditions from years of industry traffic.
“County Road 301 is a paved road that’s failing,” Villers said. “It’s potholed and cracking, which allow moisture in, which means you eventually lose your road. At the end of 301 is a gravel pit, and when they’re in full production, there is heavy truck traffic. I will say that any road that receives heavy truck traffic will deteriorate quickly, whether that’s oil and gas company trucks, land developers or gravel pits.”
The projects are categorized based on several factors including construction and maintenance costs, severity of the problem, daily traffic and type of traffic, and crash history.
The 2016 budget for the road and bridge department, including all revenue sources, is $10.8 million, with $2.9 million coming from Highway User Tax funds and $1.5 million in property tax.