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County funds

Mill-levy increase is a good first step in meeting road and bridge backlog

La Plata County does not often go to voters in search of revenue. In fact, it has been 25 years since a mill-levy increase on property tax has been proposed, so when a wide-ranging bipartisan committee of county residents, business owners, decision-makers and community leaders recommends that the Board of County Commissioners ask voters this November to increase their property taxes, it is advice that warrants heeding.

The proposed increase – likely to be no less than 2.0 mills – would be strictly dedicated to road and bridge maintenance and construction. This is a pressing and growing need – among many others – in La Plata County that requires attention and quickly.

On Wednesday, the county’s Fiscal Sustainability Steering Committee presented county commissioners a multi-prong set of recommendations aimed at curbing a projected $11.09 million deficit that is developing as a result of decreased tax revenue from oil and gas activity, combined with the county’s low property-tax rate.

A mill-levy increase that would expire after 10 years would go a long way to offsetting an impending infrastructure crisis. Of that projected deficit, $6.05 million will come from the Road and Bridge Fund. A 2.0 mill-levy increase, based on 2015 property valuations, would generate an estimated $3.9 million a year. It is a reasonable request for an urgent, proven need that county commissions have neglected for nearly 30 years.

“Every single county commission since 1987 has said: ‘Someday, we’re going to need a mill-levy increase,’ and they kicked the can down the road,” La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.

La Plata County’s mill levy is 8.5; the state average is 20 mills. There is plenty of room to meet the county’s pressing road and bridge needs while still keeping tax rates low. Plus, the 10-year time horizon on the tax increase requires the county to spend the money carefully – and find ways to save or replace it once the tax expires. In the meantime, the fiscal sustainability group is recommending supplemental revenue strategies, including a proposed use tax that could potentially offset the property-tax increase. The committee recommended waiting until 2016 to ask voters about the use tax, and that is wise; county voters have twice rejected use-tax proposals, most recently in 2001.

But for the mill-levy increase, time is of the essence; the recommendation is to take it to voters this November, and the commissioners are likely to do so. They ought to, particularly given that it would be the sole local tax issue on the 2015 ballot, but it will take a full court press to win.

Voters will want to – and should – see a list of the county’s road and bridge needs, their cost and their timeline. That plan exists, but tax-increase proponents will need to begin, quickly, making that plan known throughout the county. Tours should be arranged so that motorists and cyclists can see the extensive disrepair that needs attention – for public safety, at a bare minimum. County voters are not easily persuaded to tax themselves and are not often asked to do so. Investing in roads and bridges is a fundamental function of county government, and something essential to life in ours and all counties. The county is looking for – and finding – reasonable ways to meet that requirement; voters should prepare to do the same.

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