A survey of La Plata County residents found that voter approval for any tax increase in 2019 is a long shot, despite projections that county services – such as the Road and Bridge Department, the Human Services Department and the Sheriff’s Office – will suffer.
La Plata County residents, if posed with a direct question about a sales or property tax, would not approve either one, according to a survey of 371 people living in the county. County commissioners paid New Bridge Strategy, a civic research group, around $25,000 to conduct the poll.
The polling came in response to a 50% decrease in property tax revenues since 2010, a symptom of the downturn in the oil and gas industry in Southwest Colorado that slashed county revenues by about $15 million in eight years. County officials have cut positions and increased workloads in understaffed departments serving an ever-growing community in an effort to stay financially afloat.
But cutting positions isn’t enough, the county’s Long-Term Finance Committee found. The county needs a new source of revenue to keep up with increasing demands for taxpayer dollars, according to a study conducted by longtime financial experts in the community.
The survey, conducted by phone and email from May 17 to May 23, asked half of respondents whether they would support a 1.5% sales tax increase and asked the other half if they’d support a 6.5 mill property tax increase, said New Bridge Strategy Principal Lori Weigel in a presentation Tuesday to county commissioners.
Polling found 34% of voters would approve a 1.5% sales tax increase, 52% would vote against it and 14% were undecided. The same survey showed that 37% of voters would approve a 6.5 mill property tax increase, 49% would vote against and 14% were undecided.
Weigel cautioned commissioners about seeking any tax increase in November 2019. Even with a margin of error around 5.24%, there’s not enough potential variation in responses – which often mirror votes – to show support for any tax increase, she said. And undecided voters are more likely to vote against a tax increase rather than for it, she said.
“‘No’ is always a safer place,” Wiegel said.
Commissioner Julie Westendorff said the county hasn’t done enough to educate residents about the potential impacts of budget deficits. She recognized a need for changing communication tactics, suggesting county officials focus less on what may need to be cut as a result of budget deficits and more on a desire to continue providing services at an adequate level.
“These 371 likely voters don’t see it as we do,” she said. “If we could get out and have community conversations, we’ll have a better result.”
A 2020 tax ballot measure may be a safer bet for the county, Wiegel said. Drafting a ballot question, starting a campaign and educating residents takes time and effort, she said, and November 2019 is only five months away. Commissioner Clyde Church said impacts on county services will be critical, but there are reasons to wait.
The 2020 ballot will include presidential candidates and is more likely to draw a larger, younger crowd. More than half of respondents 55 and older would not support a tax increase in 2019, the survey found. Waiting will also give the county more time to educate voters about the need and craft a campaign to acknowledge issues most important to voters, including roads, revenue needs and improved welfare systems, survey results show.
Church also recognized the diversity of issues around La Plata County – Dryside residents have different concerns from people who live near Purgatory Resort. He said his gut feeling is to wait, conduct another poll next year and go from there.
While a survey of potential voters said there wasn’t enough support for either a sales tax or a property tax, a greater percentage of respondents initially seemed to support the property tax when asked about each option individually. But interestingly, when asked to pick directly between the two, or after given more information about how a sales tax or property tax would impact people, more respondents preferred a sales tax increase.
But financial experts working with the county said a property tax increase would put the county in a less volatile financial position compared with a sales tax increase. Sales tax fluctuates while property tax is often steady from year to year.
Westendorff said she’ll have to think more about the rift between residents’ preference for a sales tax increase and expert advice suggesting a property tax increase. Commissioners in 2015 and 2016 put a ballot item to voters that would have raised the mill levy by 2.4 points. Both attempts failed.
“A poor tax policy decision is what the community will most likely support,” she said. “Should we make a bad policy decision just to get funding? I’ll have to sit on that.”
A previous version of this story said respondents, when asked individually, supported a property tax. While true about initial contact, surveyors gave respondents more information about impacts of a tax that changed support to favor a sales tax.
Poll: What would be a more effective way for La Plata County to increase revenue: a sales tax or property tax?
Sales tax - 820 - 72.57%
Property tax - 310 - 27.43%