EDITORIAL: ‘There is No Plan B’… Part Four

Read Part One

I don’t fully subscribe to the cliché that “those not willing to learn from history are destined to repeat it.”

But it does have a certain ring to it.

Slightly more than three years ago, a small group of Town residents and their supporters were proposing a significant tax increase that turned into a divisive issue among the Town electorate, and also among those living outside the Town. The controversial one percent increase was going to be collected only by the Town government, and only within the Town limits. Only Town voters were allowed to vote on the measure, even though all of the businesses collecting the tax — including Walmart and City Market — would be patronized by the entire community, including the 85 percent of the community residents who lived outside the Town limits.

The promoters of the tax increase were planning to use the new tax revenues to secure a municipal bond, to build an $18 million Recreation Center that would be located near Pagosa Springs High School. The spreadsheets shared with the public showed the increased sales tax lasting maybe 25 years.

Tempers flared as we approached the April 8, 2014, election date. One of the key proponents of the Rec Center was escorted out of a Town Council meeting by two police officers, when she tried to engage in some unwelcome verbal sparing with Council members who has publicly expressed their opposition to the proposed tax increase.

The controversy has also sparked claims by the tax increase supporters of “lies and misinformation” coming from opponents of the proposed tax increase.

One month before the election, the voters still had almost no definite information about the proposed facility. What we had instead was some confirmed ballot language — and a confusing mess of unverifiable estimates, promises and guesses about how much sales tax the Town could truly expect to collect, how large the facility might be, and how many people would actually purchase “family passes” to use the facility.

In January, the Rec Center Committee had ‘estimated’ that the Town’s sales tax collections would probably increase by an average of 2.42 percent annually, over the next 20-25 years. But three weeks before the election date, that estimate changed rather unexpectedly, and the Rec Center Committee announced the surprising news that the Town’s sales tax collections would increase by 4.65 percent annually for the next 20-25 years. (In point of fact, sales tax collections for 2017 have been about 2 percent above 2016, so far.)

These announcements were not “facts” however. They were estimates, and guesses.

Meanwhile, we did have a few facts to rely on — such as the ballot language, which looked like this:

recreation center tax increase

This ballot measure, if approved, would have authorized some unnamed bonding company to generate municipal bonds with a face value not to exceed $18 million. The company would be authorized to set interest rates as needed, generating repayment costs of up to $44.9 million. The repayment schedule could be stretched out for up to 25 years. These facts were included in the April 8 ballot language.

At the March 20, 2014, public presentation hosted by the Rec Center Committee, local critic Albert Jenab asked Town recreation director Tom Carosello to verify that the most recent debt schedules published by the bond advisors from George K. Baum included no money for operations and maintenance.

It’s one thing to build a new government facility. It’s another thing to insure that the community can afford to operate and maintain the facility.

Fortunately, Don Diones — the Town’s lead representative at George K. Baum, and a soft-spoken, grandfatherly figure — was present at the meeting to answer questions.

recreation center tax increase pagosa springs

George K. Baum consultant Don Diones fielded questions at the March 20 Rec Center presentation.

Mr. Jenab: “Are you Mr. Diones? Hello, we spoke on the phone, a couple of weeks ago. O&M (Operations and Maintenance) is not covered in the latest bond schedule, is it?”

Mr. Diones: “No, it isn’t.”

Mr. Jenab: “That’s what I thought.”

In other words — according to one of the financial advisors who help create the bond schedules — the bond investors, who would be loaning the Town $18 million, would be repaid the handsome sum of up to $44.9 million out of the proposed sales tax increase… but the Town would be short $250,000 per year trying to operate and maintain the facility.

Opponents of the Rec Center tax increase were able to orchestrate the defeat of the proposal by a handsome margin.

I find this bit of Pagosa Springs history informative — and you might as well? Because the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners have lately been throwing around the number “$17 million” for a new jail, to replace the jail they abandoned two years ago. The “$17 million” would include a new Sheriff’s office complex to replace the one the Sheriff currently occupies.

The entrance to the the current Sheriff’s offices and the abandoned County Detention Center as it appeared on a sunny July morning, 2017. The jail facility has been sitting vacant since May 2015.

As far as I can tell, the “$17 million” does not include the millions of dollars it will cost to convert the existing jail and Sheriff’s offices into court facilities, as proposed in recent BOCC discussions. If we assume that such a conversion would cost another $3 million, then it might appear that the County plans to ask the voters for a tax increase similar to the one proposed by the Rec Center Committee in 2014, with similar interest rate, and a similar duration.

In other words, up to maybe $45 million, to be repaid over maybe 25 years? That $45 million would go into the pockets of big city investors… essentially leaving the community… never to be seen again.

And we’d then have another County facility that would need to be operated and maintained for decades to come, at a cost of… how much per year? The O&M would come from… where?

This is Plan A.  As far as we can tell.

Commissioner Steve Wadley assures us there is no Plan B. There is no plan that could include remodeling the existing jail into what it already is: a jail. There is no plan that would construct additional courtroom space on the vacant property next door to the current Courthouse, so that the alleged criminals could walk from the jail to the courtroom without needing two miles of secure transport, each way.

There is no Plan B.  There is only Plan A.

Granted, a Rec Center is not the same thing as a Detention Center. No one buys a “family pass” to use a Detention Center.  History does not actually “repeat itself.” It merely seems to repeat itself.

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.