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Public forum deals with tax issues

The prevailing thoughts at the first of three community-wide public forums held by the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners in 2010 involved the need to keep taxes low enough to allow affordable living in the county, while providing the school district and other educational resources with a stable foundation.

While the county’s public forums are usually left open in terms of topics, the BoCC’s intent for its Tuesday meeting was to hear from constituents on a number of topics related to the upcoming November election:

• A possible mill levy or sales tax for the Archuleta County School District 50 Joint.

• A possible mill levy or sales tax for the Archuleta County Education Center.

• A possible mill levy or sales tax for county roads.

County Administrator Greg Schulte explained the choice of topics, referring to the fact that the meeting was held in Pagosa Springs and, in terms of timing, “there’s a lot of issues coming forward for this community and particularly on the ballot in November 2010.”

The special districts will be sent a notice in July asking if they intend to bring forward ballot issues. The deadline for what goes on the ballot is September.

The evening started with Schulte explaining the basis, and pros and cons, of sales tax and mill levies as well as explaining that county staff has had internal discussions about pursuing options to provide for additional road funding.

County staff also provided handouts of the proposed ballot language for Amendments 60 (dealing with property taxes) and 61 (dealing with state and local debt limitations) and Proposition 101 (dealing with motor vehicle, income and telecommunications taxes), which will appear on the Colorado ballot.

“For those of you that haven’t heard that there have been three measures that have made the ballot and they will, if passed, will significantly affect how local and state government does business,” Schulte said, adding later in the meeting, “Please, educate yourself.”

Schulte then turned the floor over to Linda Lattin, school board president, who alerted those in attendance to the existence of Colorado House Bill 1369 which, if passed, would potentially cap the revenue schools could bring in from mill levies and cause further funding cuts. The cuts would be in addition to $2.3 million the school board is already cutting over two years.

“If that is true and I understand that correctly, then why bother to go with the mill levy? It defeats the purpose. All we’re doing is giving the state more money,” Lattin said, adding that no decisions had been made.

Executive Director Don Goodwin then explained that the Ed Center is currently funded through donations, gifts and grants, but will be asking the BoCC to place creation of a county-wide special tax district on the ballot, to be funded at 1.5 mills. The funding would allow the center to grow its telecommunication and postsecondary education options, and helping to improve the business climate, Goodwin said.

“This has been a pretty extensive debate with our board members because the timing is never right for this kind of an issue; but, on the other hand, sometimes crisis presents opportunity and I think that opportunity is in front of us,” Goodwin said.

The meeting soon opened to public comment.

The first attendee to speak up asked about road costs and how many additional roads would be fixed if a mill levy increase was approved, opining that, unless the additional funding would provide for a significant amount of the county’s roads to receive work yearly, the timing was wrong.

Schulte said the county would likely lean more toward using sales tax for roads, which, with one more cent added, would reach the limit of 7.9 percent. The additional cent, he said, would equal $1.5 million dollars, which would be split with the Town of Pagosa Springs. One mill levy would equate to roughly $300,000. Costs for road work would depend on if the road was gravel or new pavement, in need of resurfacing, or on a number of other scenarios. Recent resurfacing work has cost just under $1 million per mile.

Teri Frazier asked how much of the county’s 1A funding is for roads, to which Schulte explained that 60 percent of the $1.5 million, or $900,000, in 1A is put to roads, but said that 1A would also sunset in the coming years, with the last year to collect being 2012.

Fred Jaramillo urged the county to cut back, saying, “It seems like you’ve got more employees there than citizens for the county.”

Schulte noted that the county employed 155 people, while Commissioner Bob Moomaw later added that the number was approximately the same as in 2003, following a 30-percent reduction after the county’s 2007 financial crisis.

With that, the majority of the discussion transitioned to funding for education and the need to maintain affordable taxes.

“This is about the worst time (to ask for taxes), I think, because of the fact that the economy is so bad. Everybody knows that. Why are so many people leaving Pagosa? We’ve been here forever and we’re getting out as soon as we can,” said Mary Jaramillo, adding, “it seems like everything you need has to come out of taxes. ... taxes are really getting bad.”

“I will put any amount of money into education I can, because education is our future and if we don’t pay to educate our kids ... we’re in a lot of hurt,” said Jody McAlister, Ed Center board member, adding, “It’s not that much money. Don’t have a mochaccino every other day, don’t go buy an extra six pack of beer once a week and that’s going to pay for the education. I mean, we’ve got to put it in perspective.”

“If I was working, I could probably agree with a lot of that,” Fred Jaramillo said.

“We have been paying for schools,” Mary Jaramillo said, concerning property taxes.

The structure for funding schools at the state level also came under fire following an explanation from Linda Lattin that, while taxes are paid in Archuleta County, not all of the taxes make it back to the local school district and, in fact, Archuleta County sees one of the lowest returns in the state. Many voiced their opinions concerning the need to fix the problem at the state level.

Bob Clinkenbeard urged people to look at the political reality in light of lessened amounts of disposable income, noting that if all three of the items being discussed made the ballot, they would likely all be defeated.

Clinkenbeard later noted that the community and county needed to put only one issue on the ballot to give it a better chance of passing.

Jan Clinkenbeard expanded on the subject, saying that people are already leaving the community for economic reasons and, if taxes were increased beyond what she deemed were already high amounts, the community would be further from attracting middle class families.

“Taxes are, I think, a sensitive subject for all of us. If we have faith in our government, in our local government ... then I think we have very little to complain about,” said an unidentified local resident, asking that the county continue to give the residents the information needed to make good decisions.

“Sometimes we have to spend a little more and create some new ideas and some new avenues to generate more money,” another attendee said. “If we only think in terms of fear, we’re going to hurt ourselves.”

Dave Richardson similarly noted that people should look at taxes as an investment, not an expense.

Throughout the conversation, the view advocating the need for education was clear, with anecdotes that developing countries focus on education in order to grow and develop, and statements that local education is necessary to produce viable, competitive members of society. Others simply questioned the cost of not educating the young people in the county.

Wrapping up the evening, the commissioners in attendance voiced their opinions.

“I’ve heard a lot of doom and gloom somewhat tonight,” Moomaw said, adding, “To me, this is not dramatically different than what happened in the county in 2007.”

Moomaw continued that his challenge was “to look at this crisis as an opportunity and take it and run with it,” and a time to “put everything out on the table to see what can and cannot be done.”

“I’m fed up with taxes. I’m fed up with what’s going on, but I’ve seen something really special in this community,” said Commissioner John Ranson, detailing that he’s seen people bringing exciting events to the community and sees opportunity to be creative and look at the school formula and different ideas.

Ranson continued that, although times are tough for everyone, the community is “too great” to give up on and filled with great talent. “I’m excited as I’ve ever been.”

The next regular BoCC meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., April 6. The next community forum will be held June 29 in Chromo.

During months with five Tuesdays, the BoCC holds community meetings throughout the county. The June 29 meeting will be held in Chromo and the Aug. 31 meeting will be held in Arboles. All meetings are open to all county residents.

It should also be noted that the meetings are separate from the planning department’s series of “Road Show” meetings.

randi@pagosasun.com