City budget

The Durango City Council can claim a dual victory of preserving decades-old property-tax rates while increasing services it offers residents with its $55 million 2013 budget. In the success, though, there is a not-quite-hidden cost burden still being placed on residents through fees for services and other nontax charges.

A suite of fee increases will hit residents in 2013, including a $3 monthly cost for curbside recycling pickup, a doubling of the sewer fees and the return of the franchise fee paid through La Plata Electric Association bills. While none of these fees is without justification – in fact, each has very good reasons for being levied – the larger budgetary picture is worth closer examination.

The city is fortunate to draw the majority of its annual funding from sales-tax revenue – a pot of money filled disproportionately by those whose address is not within city limits. Visitors and county residents contribute heavily to the city coffers and provide the City Council with enviable leeway to make significant investments in the city’s infrastructure and services.

The remaining 45 percent of the city’s general fund is paid primarily by residents’ contributions through fees and property taxes. That is not unreasonable on its surface, but as a community that commits significant resources in making itself attractive to visitors, including through services that appeal to tourists, there is no shame in drawing community resources from those who choose to visit the region. In fact, it is wholly appropriate.

For 2013, though, the city is reluctant to do so, rejecting a proposal to increase the lodgers tax, for example. The City Council responded to pressure from downtown hoteliers who said the increase would unfairly burden their guests and questioned the appropriateness of using outsiders’ money to fund local cultural endeavors. By that logic, the city should be using city residents’ money only for local offerings and money generated from nonresidents to fund things that benefit visitors and county-dwellers.

The absurdity of such a litmus reveals how multifaceted the community really is. There are many services the city provides – parking, recreation, library, trails and open space – whose benefits extend far beyond city limits, or even those of the county and state. Supporting cultural institutions can, and does, fall into this category, and should be given at least as much budgetary credence as, say, subsidizing a bike race. The wide-ranging offerings that the city funds, and the correspondingly wide audience those offerings attract, can, and should, draw on outside revenues to offset the costs.

By focusing on fees that primarily affect city residents – recycling, parking, sewer and otherwise – to support a growing budget, the City Council has sent a message that it is more concerned about the pocketbooks of visitors than those of its constituents. While it is true that residents will get something for their investment, those who do not reside in city limits receive a lot more for theirs. The city should find a way to even those scales.

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