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La Plata County won’t pursue tax increase in 2019 election

Effort to educate community could prompt ballot item in 2020
La Plata County will not ask voters for a tax increase in the 2019 election, after a survey showed it did not have community support.

La Plata County will not ask voters for a tax increase in the 2019 election after a recent survey found insufficient community support.

Instead, county commissioners Tuesday directed staff to embark on a robust, yearlong community-engagement effort to better educate residents about the budget shortfalls plaguing the county and its ability to provide services to residents.

Depending on the outcome of those conversations, a potential tax increase could be posed to voters in the 2020 election.

Lachelt

“On one level, it feels irresponsible to not try to do something because it’s a serious financial situation,” said Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “But I think, in the end, if we are really serious about a very well-done engagement effort, it probably takes us further toward success than trying something this year.”

La Plata County’s operating budget has been in a downward slide since 2010, a period of time during which the county saw a 50% decrease, about $15 million, in property tax revenues – a result of the downturn in the oil and gas industry.

It’s affected the county’s ability to provide basic services, such as road improvements and funding for libraries, and created staffing issues at the Sheriff’s Office and Department of Human Services.

County officials have maintained they have cut positions and increased workloads in understaffed departments. But the situation has reached a tipping point where cutting isn’t enough, officials say, prompting the county to take the community’s temperature about whether it would approve a tax increase.

In 2015 and again in 2016, the county’s attempts to raise taxes failed. And according to a survey of about 370 residents in May, it appears a ballot item asking for a tax increase in 2019 would fail again.

Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said the survey found about two-thirds of residents know the county has budget shortfalls. However, there was “clear insufficient support” of voters approving either a sales or property tax increase to alleviate the county’s financial woes.

Polling found just 34% of voters would approve a 1.5% sales tax increase, while 52% would vote against it and 14% were undecided. The same survey showed that only 37% of voters would approve a 6.5 mill property tax increase, while 49% would vote against and 14% were undecided.

La Plata County commissioners, in line with the recommendation of county staff, decided it would be better to take the year to develop and deploy a communication plan to educate residents about the county’s budget deficits.

Westendorff

“The public has to learn … regardless of any decision we make,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. “... Folks need to know what county services are, and what it costs.”

Much talk Tuesday centered on how best to communicate to county residents, whether through local town hall meetings, radio, television or the newspaper. Westendorff said it’s going to take a swath of community members to get the word out.

“I wasn’t planning another get-out-the-vote effort, but there may be one left in me,” she said, jokingly, in reference to the fact that she can’t run in 2020 because of term limits.

Commissioners directed staff to begin the planning process for community outreach immediately. Officials expect to conduct additional polling after the bulk of educational efforts and to reassess sometime next year whether to ask voters for a tax increase.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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