EDITORIAL: Town Council Weighs In on County’s Proposed Tax Increase, Part One

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

— Book of Matthew, Chapter 9

The harvest of political news stories generated last Tuesday, August 1, was indeed plentiful, and those of you who subscribe to the weekly Pagosa Springs SUN were treated to several well-written articles by SUN reporters Marshall Dunham and Randi Pierce. Mr. Dunham’s articles covered some political decisions and discussions that occurred at Pagosa Springs Town Council meeting on the evening of August 1, and Ms.Pierce wrote about a couple of decisions made by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners earlier that same day.

To quickly summarize…

The BOCC decided not to reconstruct the miserable pavement on East Golf and Backswing, within the Pagosa Lakes subdivision, with the excuse that the single bid received on the project was about $140,000 higher than the engineer’s estimate. (I hope to write an opinion piece about that decision in the near future.)

The BOCC also voted to hire attorney Todd Starr as the County’s in-house attorney, a position Mr. Starr had held previously… before he suddenly resigned and was immediately re-hired on a contractual basis through a questionable process that generated a couple of citizen-led lawsuits. The change over to a contractual arrangement was supposed to save the taxpayers some money, but things didn’t turn out that way, I gather. So in a sense we are back to where we came from, except that Mr. Starr’s salary is now $114,000 per year, not counting a generous benefit package.

(Ms. Pierce apparently didn’t have time to write about the curious subdivision proposal put forward by developer Jack Searle, which was tabled by the BOCC so that more information could be gathered. Another editorial I hope to write next week.)

The Town’s new $8 million sewer pipeline, originally concocted through a questionable political process by the Town Council and the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD), has run into yet another unforeseen (and potentially expensive) snag: the vents from the pipeline, in an uptown suburban neighborhood, are emitting hydrogen sulfide gas, producing a rotten-egg smell that’s in turn generating complaints from the neighbors. (Yet another opinion piece I hope to write in the near future.)

And then we have the discussion and vote by the Town Council, concerning the BOCC’s proposal to raise taxes for the construction of what is now apparently being called “a justice center” but which is in fact just a proposed Sheriff’s administration building and County jail priced at around $18 million.

SUN reporter Dunham had brought his audio recorder to Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, and from what I can tell (without reviewing my own audio recording) he did an excellent job of quoting the Council members, as they discussed various tax increase scenarios published by the BOCC.

The published options include four possible sales tax scenarios ranging from 1/2 percent to 1 percent, with various estimated interest rates on revenue bonds, and with total estimated costs (counting the interest paid to investors) of between $26 million and $35 million.

The fifth proposed taxing concept was a property tax increase of 4.25 mills, to remain in place for 20 years and with a total cost (including interest) of about $25 million.

Six of the seven Town Council members were in attendance on Tuesday evening, and all six spoke in opposition to a sales tax increase. The Town government’s tax revenues come largely from a sales tax agreement with the County government; our local 4 percent sales tax is actually a County tax, but is shared 50/50 with the Town. The state also collects 2.9 percent, for a total sales tax of 6.9 percent. Some Colorado communities of similar size have a lower sales tax rate than Archuleta County; some have a higher rate.

The BOCC has been very clear that they have no intention of sharing a potential sales tax increase with the Town, should the BOCC ultimately decide to put a sales tax increase on the ballot this November. This would of course run counter to the long-standing sharing agreement between the Town and County.

As noted by the Council members, a 20-year sales tax increase would likely make it more difficult for the Town to pass its own sales tax increase in the future, should a need arise for such an increase.

Council member Nicole DeMarco also noted that sales tax is generally thought to be harder on low-income families, who spend a larger percentage of their disposable income locally, on food and necessities.

A motion made by Council member Mat DeGraaf followed the lengthy discussion, which included concerns expressed by a couple of Council members that the Town Council could not express support for the project itself, or for any kind of tax increase, due to a lack of information about the actual project details. Everyone seemed in agreement on only one point: if the project were to be funded by a tax increase, the tax should not be a sales tax.

But in the end, Mr. DeGraaf’s improvised motion seemed to endorse the project itself:

“The formal motion that I’d like to make is that the Town Council of Pagosa Springs wishes to express support for the funding of a justice center through a mill levy increase.”

Maybe Mr. DeGraaf was tired, and not thinking straight?

As noted already, the BOCC’s current project — and its proposed tax increase — is not intended to be a “justice center”… a term which implies the inclusion of courtrooms and court offices. The $18 million expansion under consideration at the County does not include any court facilities.

Nor did the lengthy discussion about a ‘mill levy preference’ among the Council members appear to demonstrate “support for the funding of a justice center.”

But that was how Mr. DeGraaf’s motion came out, and I am sure the tax increase proponents will be happy to quote Mr. DeGraaf’s language as proof that the Town Council endorses whatever expansion project the BOCC finally decides upon, at whatever cost.

So now, with a formal Council decision to reject a sales tax increase, what are the BOCC’s options?

Read Part Two…

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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.