Town and county officials discuss taxes, debts

Attempting to address local ire regarding Notices of Valuation, the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) floated an idea of lowering the mill levy as a way to equalize local taxes inflated by recent property tax assessments made county-wide.

Brought up during a broader discussion with the Pagosa Springs Town Council during the monthly joint meeting of the boards, the proposal signals a desire to alleviate some of the tax pain felt by local residents. However, the idea was articulated during a discussion on how to institute a “use tax” on builders and contractors working on projects in the county.

A use tax would assess a fee on materials not purchased locally. “I know it’s a valid issue, again,” said town council member Stan Holt. “Maybe we need to take another look at a use tax and limit it to the construction industry.”

Although both boards recognized that out-of-county building suppliers were having a negative impact on local merchants — the recent demise of Circle-T Pro was held up as evidence — the boards were diffident in how to approach the voters with the idea.

It was during that discussion that commissioner John Ranson said, “We’re looking at lowering the mill levy to bring assessed tax burdens down.”

“It’s going to be tough to pass any tax initiative,” Ranson said, “based on property tax assessments.”

Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem advised the boards to approach the matter carefully, saying, “My caution is to look at TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights) very carefully. Some communities have ratcheted down mill levies and found it difficult to ratchet it back up.”

“We’re looking at that,” Ranson replied, “and how a decreased mill levy will affect everyone’s budget.”

Although both boards believed most taxing entities in the county had “De-Bruced” (i.e. dismantled some TABOR restrictions through referenda), the attending members concurred it would not be easy to get all local taxing entities to voluntarily reduce revenue streams by agreeing to cut the mill levy.

One obstacle to lowering the mill levy would be Archuleta County School District 50 Joint. The district’s mill was set after bonds were sold for the construction of the high school. According to district business manager Janell Wood, the district’s mill amount was predicated on repayment of those bonds. “There is no way we can lower our mill,” she said. “It’s locked in.”

County commissioner Bob Moomaw acknowledged that lowering the mill levy would not be entirely effective in addressing the problems created by the recent Notices of Valuation, saying, “There wouldn’t be any way to apply them fairly. Some constituents would come out ahead but, for some, it wouldn’t be much help.”

Returning to the issue of a use tax, the boards conceded that they would need to move quickly and carefully if they were to get the initiative on the ballot for a vote this year. County Attorney Todd Starr said, “We need to have it (a draft ballot initiative) done by early July.”

Likewise, Holt recognized that positioning another tax, in these economic times, would be a delicate matter, saying, “Residents are going to consider it a sales tax on them.”

However, Holt felt confident the idea could be positioned in such a way to make the proposal palatable to voters, saying, “If it is properly explained, I think the voters, once they understand it, will approve it.”

After cooperating on tax matters, the boards spent a little time chiding each other over unpaid bills and perceived differences of money due.

During the recent Town Clean-Up (when town residents were encouraged to remove junk, with the town offering free pickup of trash headed for the dump), the town ran up a bill that exceeded its expectations. Having budgeted $4,000 for county landfill costs, the town found itself with a total bill that ran a little over $11,000. Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon made an appeal for forgiveness of the balance, saying, “We’re asking the county to waive the fee balance of a little over $7,000.”

“The timing is really bad,” responded Moomaw. “The new cell is not ready and the county’s solid waste budget is down.”

“We do want to work with you guys,” said county commissioner Clifford Lucero but he added that the county’s landfill was facing its own problems and the town’s request would not help matters.

Unwilling to shut down the town completely, however, County Administrator Greg Schulte said, “The BoCC needs to decide on it. We’ll bring it before the July 7 meeting as a formal request, if you draft it.”

For its part, the town expressed appreciation for the cooperation of the county and the school district, leading to the success of the new sports complex project, with Mitchem stating, “Recreation is a partnership. I just wanted to clearly state that the town appreciates the partnership.”

The town then reminded the county of the ongoing responsibility for the upkeep of the park, with town council member Jerry Jackson saying, “Eighty-percent of funding came from the town but eighty-percent of the people using those fields are county residents, not town residents.”

“We need to keep this on the table,” he added. “It’s a biggie for us; it’s a major drain.”

Both boards agreed to keep that issue on the table at the next joint meeting, Thursday, July 23, at 10 a.m. in chambers at Town Hall.

jim@pagosasun.com