Is Archuleta County’s population declining?

Coming off of years of unprecedented growth, Archuleta county could be bleeding population in unknown numbers.

A decline in county population would not only artificially boost employment numbers (see related article), while diminishing sales tax and property tax revenues for the town and county, but could also mean a decrease in state funding for the school district. Likewise, fewer residents would result in fewer dollars for local retailers and service providers.

While impossible to accurately gauge, population numbers appear to be in decline based on several factors that indicate that residents are leaving the county.

One indication is declining school enrollment. Archuleta School District 50 Joint reports an enrollment drop of 32 students at the end of this past school year (versus enrollment at the start of the school year, tallied in October), a 2.2-percent drop in student population. While school enrollment is not necessarily a direct reflection of the county’s total population, it is one important indication that people have indeed left the county.

Furthermore, the district will not have an accurate indication of reduced enrollment until the start of the next school year nor can say how many families remained in the county so children could complete the school year before moving away.

According to Janell Wood, school district business manager, losing 32 students will amount to a loss of over $220,000 in state funding for the district’s budget. “In fact,” Wood said, “the district has budgeted this year for a loss of 50 students.”

Another factor indicating a drop in county population is the increasing number of disconnected utility services reported by La Plata Electrical Association.

Indiana Reed, LPEA spokesperson said that, while impossible to say for what reason, “What we have just started to see very recently is an increase in disconnection because of nonpayment. We suspect these people left some time ago and just didn’t cancel their electric service or pay their bill, and we suspect many were rentals, as that is historically the situation.”

Reed added that it’s difficult — if not impossible — to gauge population size based on LPEA service numbers. “I think on an upswing in the economy, you can use the increase in electric meters as a good indicator of growth, but going the opposite direction, it’s difficult to tell.”

Reed said that the problem correlating actual service numbers to area population is due to the fact that landlords, brokers, contractors, et al, often keep services on in an unoccupied house or apartment for showing the place to potential renters or buyers, making repairs or improvements, or simply to prevent the pipes from freezing. “LPEA wouldn’t necessarily know what exactly was going on with occupancy,” she said.

Of course, the number of empty houses or apartments retaining utility services, while difficult to count, are also an indication of a population decrease in the county. In fact, local Realtors likewise report a trend of residents leaving the county.

As of press time, the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for Archuleta county — a data base shared by Realtors that includes all properties listed with real estate companies — included 1,854 total properties, 661 of which were single family homes. That number was up from 623 single family homes listed last Friday.

However, the MLS does not include homes being sold by the owner (and not listed with Realtors). In fact, sometimes Realtors will turn down a listing because the current owner’s asking price is higher than what Realtors believe they can sell the house for.

“I’d say we have less people in the county,” said Harold Kelley, a local Realtor. “We’ve received an increase in listing requests. We’ve turned down more than we’ve taken.”

“It seems like we have an all-time high,” said Realtor Jann Pitcher, regarding the inventory of homes on the market. “We have 661 houses in the MLS, which is an all-time record.”

“We keep collecting listings and we’re not selling much,” said Realtor Jim Smith, regarding the local housing market, an assessment shared by Kelley. “Year to date, we’re 70-percent worse than last year,” he said.

Realtor Lynn Cook (whose company lists the majority of foreclosed homes in Archuleta county) reported that a large percentage of the homes entering the market were listed within the last six to eight months.

In April, The SUN reported that the county had processed 44 foreclosures. As of press time, the county had reported that it had processed 102 foreclosures, year to date.

However, Cook was quick to emphasize that the county’s numbers can be misleading, saying, “It’s not an actual reflection of homes in foreclosure. Some are bought back by the bank. Sometimes, the owners have caught up on their payments and stopped the foreclosure. Some houses have two or three mortgages and some or all of those mortgages will count as an individual foreclosure.”

Nonetheless, foreclosed homes have made a significant impact on the local housing market. “Of the fifty-one sales this year, thirty-one-percent have been foreclosure sales,” said Pitcher.

The combination of factors that include declining school enrollment, increasing numbers of nonpayment disconnects for utilities as well as an increase in real estate listings would suggest that Archuleta county has lost, and is losing, population. However, short of an immediate census, it is impossible to say, with complete certainty, if the Pagosa area is experiencing a shrinking population.

Cook believes the apparent trend of population decline could continue for at least one reason: the controversy surrounding property tax notices of valuation (see related article). The source of ire for a majority of county property owners, the recent assessments, which saw an almost uniform increase in values — and taxes — defy the experience of area property owners who have seen real property values plummet.

“I actually know of eleven people who have said they will list their homes if their tax protests are unsuccessful,” Cook said. “And I know I’m not the only Realtor hearing this, so I know there are others saying that.”

Yet, Cook remains sanguine that the worst for Archuleta county could be over and things could rebound soon. “I think we’re at the bottom of this, or top, depending on your perspective.”

Kelley is more pessimistic, however. “We’ve got a couple more years of this,” he said. “I don’t see this turning around until some time in 2011.”

If the county is indeed losing residents, it is the economy that is most likely driving residents to relocate. Given current economic circumstances and projections, it could be awhile before the Pagosa area experiences growth, both in its economy and in its population numbers.

jim@pagosasun.com