EDITORIAL: Five Reasons Why 1A is the Wrong Tax Increase

I don’t always vote ‘Yes’ on tax increases for local or state governments. But back in 2006, Archuleta County put a de-Brucing measure on the ballot that seemed to make a lot of sense. The community was still growing… although the growth had slowed down quite a bit… and property tax collections had been improving, year after year.

And the County roads were still deteriorating.

The ballot measure, called 1A, proposed to use excess property tax revenues to fix some of the worst County roads — excess revenues that would normally be refunded to the taxpayers under the TABOR Amendment. The measure didn’t exactly increase taxes; not technically. Instead, it allowed the tax mill levy to stay the same, in the face of increased property values. (Under TABOR, a mill levy typically gets reduced when property values are increasing at a rate faster than inflation and population growth.) The extra tax money would also be used to improve the County’s computer systems, and for recreation, and for a couple of other things I don’t recall at the moment.

The property tax rate, under 1A, would remain ‘de-Bruced’ for six years. Then the TABOR limits would be reimposed. Most of us voters liked the idea, and we voted ‘Yes.’

Here’s the resulting growth in property tax collections, as graphed in the County’s 2011 budget:

The tax increase seen by the Archuleta County government from 2004 through 2011, as a result of a temporary “de-Brucing” vote in 2006.

Ten years later, the roads continue to deteriorate. But I would be willing to give the County another chance. We have new County Commissioners and most of the key staff from 2006 has been replaced. The County seems to have become more fiscally responsible… following its near-bankruptcy in 2007-2008, when $2 million “disappeared” from the County accounting system. (Never to be found.)

But this year, Ballot Measure 1A does not promise to spend $26.6 million on road maintenance. Instead, it proposes to use the money to fund a jail, twice as big as our existing (but abandoned) County jail, and a Sheriff’s Office almost four times the size of the office occupied by Sheriff Pete Gonzalez in 2014.

Here are five reasons why this is the wrong tax increase.

1. The Town Council unanimously requested that County Commissioners use a property tax increase to fund the jail, instead of the proposed sales tax increase. The Town relies almost completely on sales tax collections for its funding, and will have a much harder time passing a sales tax increase in the future — if needed — if the County is using all the additional sales tax for the next 14 years. A property tax increase would have been a more equitable choice for Measure 1A, for the whole community.

2. Because the BOCC chose to pursue a ‘Revenue Bond,’ funded by a volatile sales tax increase, instead of a ‘General Obligation Bond’ funded by less-volatile property taxes, the County will have to collect 25 percent more taxes than they need for the jail — to satisfy the investment bankers who will be buying the bonds. Once again, the BOCC chose the wrong funding mechanism. (This “25 percent more” figure is according to County Finance Director Larry Walton, as reported in the Daily Post last August.)

3. The proposed Sheriff’s Office is more than three times the size of the offices occupied by Sheriff Pete Gonzales in 2014. But the size of the Sheriff’s staff is the smaller than it was in 2007. (According to the figures provided by tax-increase-advocate Jim Huffman, published in the Daily Post on Monday.) Additionally, the Sheriff still has 13 “Detention Officers” on his staff, even though he has no jail to operate. (Again, that’s according to Jim Huffman’s figures.)

4. We are better at managing the people who violate county and state laws than we were in 2007, without having to lock them up. And we save a lot of money, by managing them better and keeping them out of jail. Tax-advocate Jim Huffman stated in his above-mentioned letter:

“Our Detention/Sentencing Deputies are currently ‘managing’ (transporting or monitoring) about 54 inmates, 24 incarcerated in the jail in Durango and about 30 Alternative Sentencing ‘clients’ that should be in jail, but instead are on ankle monitors getting random drug and alcohol tests. They could all be housed in our new jail if built as designed.”

Mr. Huffman is dead wrong. The 30 Alternative Sentencing clients should not be in jail. The judges who very sensibly sentenced these 30 clients to alternative sentences determined that these offenders were not a danger to society and that they could be efficiently (and economically) managed through the use of ankle-bracelets and other tracking methods.

Mr. Huffman wants to stick these low-risk offenders in an expensive new jail, and spend taxpayer funds to house, feed and care for them — but it would be patently illegal to do so, because they were never sentenced to spend time in jail. (At yesterday’s BOCC work session, we learned about a jail inmate who needed surgery. $9,000 worth of surgery. When a judge puts a man in jail, the taxpayers foot all of the inmate’s medical bills.)

Housing people in a jail, when alternative methods are available, is the very worst choice for everyone. That’s why our local judges provide sentencing alternatives for most of the offenders currently overseen by the Sheriff. We are getting better, every day, at keeping people out of jail while also making sure they behave themselves. It’s simple: we don’t need a jail twice the size of our existing (abandoned) jail.

5. If we want to extract increased taxes from the community, we should use it to serve the whole community. Like, for example, on fixing our terrible road system. We shouldn’t be using $26.6 million to keep 24 inmates locked up in a fancy new jail. My goodness, that’s more than a million dollar per person. We can do better than that.

This is the wrong tax increase for Archuleta County. I encourage you to vote ‘No’ on Ballot Measure 1A. Tell your County Commissioners to bring us a better choice — one that will make the most efficient use of our precious tax revenues.

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.