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County voters to decide mill levy, Internet options

Commissioners OK 2 questions for November ballot

La Plata County voters will weigh a mill-levy increase and options for Internet and telecommunications services at the polls this November.

County commissioners approved two ballot items Thursday.

The first will allow constituents to consider a property-tax increase of up to 2.4 mills. The current levy is 8.5. It would be a “floating tax,” meaning commissioners could vote annually to raise and lower the tax based on revenue, but it could never go higher than 2.4 mills.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. “If for some reason there were a need to give relief to the taxpayers, this allows us to do that.”

A mill is equivalent to $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Conditionally, the tax hike would expire in 10 years. The municipalities of Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio would also receive a cut of the tax.

Dwindling natural-gas prices and production at the wellhead have taken a heavy toll on La Plata County’s tax revenues, and commissioners agreed to explore alternate sources going forward, particularly to address road and infrastructure.

In 2010, property taxes raised about $30 million annually, but by 2014, revenue dropped almost 50 percent to $15 million.

“We’ve been going down this path for a long time since I was elected in 2012,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.

“This is a really expensive community to live in. Proposing to raise taxes by referring this to the voters is a big deal. That said, I believe that it is a modest proposed tax increase of up to 2.4 mills.”

Commissioner Brad Blake agreed.

Voters will also decide this fall whether to restore the county’s rights to provide high-speed Internet, telecommunications services and/or cable television services to residents, businesses, schools and other entities.

In 2005, via Senate Bill 152, the state of Colorado removed local governments’ rights to provide these services through public or private partnerships without voters’ permission.

“Over the last couple years, this has gained momentum in both cities and counties as they identified a need to expand broadband infrastructure,” County Manager Joe Kerby said.

“The county has no interest in providing that now, but we do have an interest in having public-private partnerships do that.”

With voters’ consent, La Plata County would regain the option to run fiber-optic lines to communities like Vallecito, whose bandwidth has reached the max.

“When the market doesn’t provide something, the county needs the option to do so,” Westendorff said. “If that’s laying fiber in an existing right of way, that’s an option we should have. We’re working with the Economic Development Alliance to do what’s right and not be in competition with local Internet providers.”

A similar question will be put to voters in Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio.

jpace@durangoherald.com

May 12, 2021
La Plata County Commissioners to vote on mill levy ballot item
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