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La Plata County wants to know: Will voters support a tax increase?

Research firm hired to conduct poll next month
Some county residents will be polled next month about whether they support a tax increase to help La Plata County’s budget woes.

Will La Plata County residents support a property tax increase to help the county’s declining operating budget?

That’s the question that will be posed next month to some county residents in a poll that seeks to take the temperature of the community on the willingness to raise taxes to help the county’s budget woes.

La Plata County commissioners and staff met Tuesday with an independent research firm to start drafting questions for the poll, which is expected to be done by phone and email, to select county residents from May 17 through May 22.

The point of the poll, said La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham, is to educate residents about the financial struggles facing the county and get a sense if residents would be willing to pass a mill levy increase during November’s election.

La Plata County’s operating budget, historically, has relied on revenues from property tax, mainly from oil and gas operations.

But recent downturns in natural gas production in La Plata County have caused property tax collections to drop dramatically.

Since 2010, La Plata County’s property tax revenue has declined about 50 percent as a result of the downturn in the oil and gas industry. The county revenue in 2018 was about $14.9 million, down from $29.4 million in 2010.

As a result, the county has made cuts and sacrifices where it can. But La Plata County officials say cuts can go only so far.

“We have aggressively reduced costs and improved efficiency,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “And it’s impacted the ability of existing staff. … There’s only so long you can ask four people to do the work of five.”

To maintain base level operations, La Plata County’s Long-Term Finance Committee said the county’s mill levy needs to be increased, which requires voter approval. La Plata County’s mill levy is the fourth lowest in the state and hasn’t been raised since 1991.

But previous failed attempts to raise the mill levy in 2015 and 2016 have prompted La Plata County officials to plan more meticulously around the messaging and public outreach leading up to the November election, when the county may put a tax increase question on the ballot.

La Plata County has budgeted around $25,000 to conduct the poll.

“Clearly, we need to be able to tell the community the story about our revenue situation,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.

Complications from state regulations, such as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, have also contributed to the county’s budget woes – regulations not easily explained to the public, Westendorff said.

“It’s just a random act of economy and politics that put us here,” Westendorff said.

Lori Weigel with the research firm New Bridge Strategy agreed it is hard to explain those concepts and their impact on local government. Instead, she said focusing the conversation on where the money will be used and how residents will be affected by lack of services is far more successful when asking for a tax increase.

La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens said it is difficult to pinpoint one county department as being in need of added funding.

“The need is great and widespread,” he said. “You could literally pick any department and make a compelling case to what the need is. It’s been 28 years since the county’s seen a mill levy increase. Services and population have increased, but the operational revenue has not. Every department is suffering.”

Stevens said the mill levy needs to be raised 6.55 mills to achieve an operational balance, putting the county at about 15.5 mills, a rate that still ranks within the bottom 10 counties in the state.

Graham said the poll will target a “representative sample of county voters” but did not elaborate on how many or which residents will be sampled.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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