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Bill Roberts: Excess lodgers tax revenue

City would get better answers by asking better questions

“How are you?” is a salutation, not a question. And if that is ever in doubt, try giving a serious answer to the greeter at Walmart. You will soon find out that individual has no interest in your marital status, your children or your car problems.

The City of Durango’s survey concerning the excess lodgers tax revenue is likewise unlikely to evoke a serious response. The idea of getting residents’ input is terrific, but to do so requires serious questions that can evoke meaningful answers.

The city is thinking of placing a measure on the November ballot that would ask voters to allow the city to keep excess revenue from the lodgers tax of about $1.1 million. And that requires the city to say where that money would be spent.

One would think that in a town facing as many issues as Durango, it would be easy to come up with a list of interesting and specific alternatives for this survey. Instead, the city is asking voters to prioritize three choices: Arts and culture, housing and transportation/parking. Missing was the option of world peace.

Arts and culture could mean anything from setting up a street dance to buying a Rembrandt. The arts are incredibly important to a town like Durango, but in the wrong hands, a term like “arts and culture” could also be defined to include about half of all behavior on Main Avenue. A little more specificity would be useful.

The same is true for “transportation/parking.” Most people would probably say parking is the No. 1 problem facing downtown. Building a parking garage would be one answer. So, too, might be requiring downtown employers either to provide parking for their workers or pay the city for spots for them. Those are debatable ideas, but why not have that debate? After all, something as vague as “transportation/parking” could see the money used for lobbying airlines.

“Housing” is the best one. Most people’s thoughts probably go first to affordable housing – a term that, at least in common usage, is equally undefined. Others might see workforce housing, which is another argument. But “housing” could also include down payment help for first-time homebuyers or shelter for the homeless. It could probably be stretched to include funding for a new jail.

That said, the city is right to seek public comment. And the public should be encouraged to give it. At this point, perhaps the best way to do that would be to provide direct – and presumably more focused – input by emailing the city at publiccomment@durangogov.org. The council is slated to discuss the survey on Aug. 16, which can be found at https://durangogov.org/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=2871.

It should also be said that while asking for residents’ thoughts is great, it is also the City Council’s job both to govern and to lead. It could have done better on all three had it first worked up a series of concrete and specific ideas for spending the excess lodgers tax money – and then asked the voters.