Try, try again?
City Council leans toward second attempt at tax increase on April ballot

Try, try again?

While talking to voters about the recent defeat of Question 2A – a November ballot measure meant to raise taxes to pay for needed infrastructure and a new police station – the Durango City Council floated the idea of redirecting funds from parks, trails and open spaces. But, an outcry from residents quickly squashed the idea./ Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Tracy Chamberlin - 01/10/2019

After suffering a devastating loss in the November elections, the Durango City Council appears to be looking at a second attempt this April. Councilors discussed the possibility at a meeting Tuesday afternoon of returning to voters in the spring to ask for a tax increase meant to boost city coffers. This time, however, the talk was focused on a simple sales tax increase limited in scope and length.

Swing and a miss

Last November, City Council asked residents for a combination of sales and property tax increases to help pay for street maintenance, infrastructure, additional police officers and a new police station. But, the measure – Question 2A – was voted down 61 percent to 39 percent.

Immediately following the defeat, city staff and council organized resident “Listening Sessions,” which were meant to find out not only why the measure failed but why it failed by such a large margin.

Mayor Pro Tem Melissa Youssef said she felt the respondents generally fell into two camps: those who thought the ballot measure was too broad and the increase was too high; and those who felt the city already had enough fund ing, it just needed to reconsider its priorities.

By trimming the original request – shortening the length of the tax, making it only a smaller sales tax, limiting its use to streets and with backing from a community-driven committee – it could be something that would change the minds of voters in the first camp, Youssef explained.

Instead of asking for a combination of property and sales taxes, the council focused discussions Tuesday on a simple sales tax – specifically a 1⁄4 percent. Members also did not bring up a new police station or the need to hire more officers. It was all about streets.

In addition, they considered the length of the tax and even talked about a limit of six years, which would coincide with the expiration of a 1⁄4-cent sales tax dedicated to open space and trails.

“If we could simplify it, make it shorter term and make it a very specific ask for a specific reason ... maybe there’s a possibility that would help us get to our mutual goal of general fund sustainability,” Youssef said.

City Councilor Dean Brookie said there was no question the additional funds are needed and this is the time to make it happen. But, after such a resounding defeat in November, he said he did not want to move forward if the community wasn’t on board.

Councilors floated the idea of a community-driven committee being the force behind another ballot measure. “I think that’s key,” Brookie said.

Youssef backed the notion, adding that any new ballot measure cannot be just Council-driven. “I’m willing to continue discussions and see who steps forward to support this,” she said.

Parks and Rec funds a no-go

During the Listening Sessions, some residents began to question spending on parks and recreation. It was even suggested funds could be rerouted from two sales taxes dedicated to parks, open space and trails away from their intended purpose and toward needed infrastructure projects.

Currently, almost a third of the city’s sales tax collections goes directly to parks and recreation.

Every receipt in Durango includes a 7.9 percent sales tax, 3 percent of which goes to the City. Of that, 2 percent goes into the city’s general fund while the remaining 1 percent is split, with a 1⁄2 cent going to parks and recreation, a 1⁄4 cent for open space and trails, and another 1⁄4 cent to pay the debt on past Florida Road improvements and library construction.

Durango Mayor Sweetie Marbury said she was seriously considering the idea of redirecting those funds, something that would require voter approval. However, following the most recent Listening Session – held Jan. 3 in conjunction with the Parks and Recreation, Natural Land Preservation, and Multimodal advisory boards – she’s no longer on board.

Not only were all three boards against the idea, residents came out in force to oppose it.

When the 1⁄2-cent and 1⁄4-cent taxes were approved by voters in 2015 and 2005, respectively, it was with the caveat that those funds be used specifically for parks, open space and trails. Many residents and board members said they were concerned that asking the voters to redirect those funds toward other things – even investing in needed infrastructure or to hire police – would break the community’s trust.

All council members Tuesday said they heard the public and were not interested in pursuing the idea of redirecting those funds.

Tick tock, tick tock

Although City Councilor Chris Bettin was a part of the discussions via teleconference, councilors delayed any official decisions until all five members could discuss a possible April ballot measure face-to-face. Therefore, a special study session was scheduled this coming Tues., Jan. 15, at 4 p.m.

The meeting was quickly added to the calendar because the clock is ticking. The deadline to submit a measure for the April ballot is Feb. 1, and not all council members are on board with going back to voters.

“At this time, I’m still skeptical on the timing,” Bettin said at the meeting Tuesday.

He was concerned with returning to the voters so soon, particularly after what he called a “severe defeat” in November. Other council members, however, said April is their best chance at passage.

“The November ballots are toxic,” City Councilor Dick White said. “If (the voters) turn us down, that’s their will. But I think we have to make the most prudent ask we can.”

According to City Manager Ron LeBlanc, the city has consistently had better results on the April ballot. La Plata County, the Durango 9-R School District and the state can only come to voters in November, so it’s an opportunity for the city to go solo.

Another reason for the push to come to voters this spring is that April elections are only held in odd-numbered years. Therefore, there wouldn’t be another chance like this until 2021.

“I appreciate (the) view about maybe waiting, but April’s looking like an opportunity,” Marbury said. “If it gets turned down, it gets turned down.”

Try, try again?

La Plata County came to voters to ask for a property tax in- crease to pay for specific road maintenance projects in 2015 and 2016, but the measure failed to get voter approval. It turns out, though, city residents did approve the tax in- crease (both times); it was county voters who overwhelmingly defeated the measures. This is a fact city staff were quick to point out during Tuesday's City Council meeting./ File photo