Midsummer vote

Durango voters should approve proposed changes to the city’s charter

The city of Durango is asking its residents to make two changes to the City Charter. One is a worthwhile but mundane housekeeping measure unlikely to be of interest to anyone outside city government. The other is an important change that will eliminate a fundamental injustice. But neither alone nor in tandem are they sufficient to fix the city’s problem. That could require a change to state law.

This comes in response to the voters’ April rejection of an extension to the city’s franchise agreement with La Plata Electric Association. Left standing, that could cost the city about $20 million over 20 years.

As part of an effort to fix that, the city is conducting a mail-in election to be concluded July 31. All otherwise qualified city residents can vote. The ballot poses two questions.

Ballot Question 2 asks voters to replace “references to the city treasurer with references to the city clerk” in Article IX, Section 1 of the city charter. If that works better, fine. Vote yes.

Ballot Question 1 is more interesting. It would eliminate the requirement in the same part of the charter that “registered electors at city franchise elections must also be tax-paying electors of the city.” Doing so would make those elections much more equitable.

It is curious language, though. Who does not pay taxes? The bulk of the city’s revenue is from sales tax, and everyone pays that.

What the current charter language means, is to limit voting in franchise elections to voters who pay property tax. Presumably the thinking was that only property owners pay franchise taxes.

But that is not true. In the case of the LPEA franchise, the fee is passed on to city residents through their electric bills, and many renters have their utilities in their own names. And even if they do not, those costs are surely passed on to them. The current language also excludes homeowners whose property is in the name of a trust.

With that, as many as half the city’s voters have been ineligible to vote on a tax almost all pay. Including all city residents in such a choice is simply fair.

But making that change does not ensure the franchise fee will pass. The way the LPEA franchise fee works, the electric co-op agrees to pay the city for access to its streets and rights of way, but the co-op does not treat that fee as a normal business expense for which the entire organization is responsible. Instead, it passes that cost directly on to city residents – and to city residents alone. That arrangement is in state law. The franchise fee on cable television bills works much the same way, as do the similar occupation fees the gas and phone companies collect.

What it amounts to is a roundabout way for the city to tax its residents via their utility bills. How that works was not widely understood until, thanks to Councilor Paul Broderick, the discussion leading up to April’s vote on the LPEA franchise fee.

So, vote “yes” on Ballot Questions 1 and 2 to clean up the charter and make the voting fair. Then we can talk about whether we want to tax ourselves.