White: Addressing ‘wicked’ fiscal issues

Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 4:24 PM
Mayor Dick White

Few topics are more yawn-inducing than budgets, but hardly any are more important for government at any level. So, have an extra cup of coffee and read on.

Durango City Council is well into the process of reviewing the 2018 budget proposal from City Manager Ron LeBlanc ( The proposed $79 million operating budget has a small surplus, but plans about 3 percent less spending than the budget adopted for 2017. It is designed to address the four key council goals: Community Sustainability, Civic Engagement and Democracy, Government Performance and Sense of Place.

It also incorporates actions to pursue the five top priorities of this year’s council: maintaining community character and identity; focusing on housing and transportation; addressing infrastructure, facilities, and capital improvements; creating higher community focus on climate and sustainability; and diversifying the local economy.

As usual, most of the budget simply maintains existing operations, but there are a few initiatives. The general fund collects miscellaneous revenue, primarily from sales tax, to fund broad government services. In 2018, the fund will support the long-awaited opening of recreation at Lake Nighthorse, though most of the revenue for staff and capital improvements will come from fees, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the 2015 sales tax.

General Fund capital improvements are limited by constrained sales tax revenue, with just one major streets project. At the Durango Public Library, which is funded for the most part by the La Plata County joint sales tax, the heavily worked management staff will see relief in the form a long-requested circulation supervisor.

Enterprise funds have dedicated fee revenue intended to sustainably support their operations. The Utilities Division of City Operations, beyond ongoing construction of the Santa Rita Water Reclamation Facility, will benefit from a new project manager. Supported by the Water Fund and the Sewer Fund, this person will direct more than 60 other ongoing capital projects that address a legacy of deferred maintenance, as well as routine upkeep. At the airport, careful management has yielded sufficient savings to initiate several modest projects, including behind-the-counter expansion to improve airline operations, and also parking improvements.

Finally and unfortunately, the Transportation Services Fund faces unsustainable disparities between available parking and fare revenue and the cost of transit operations. Because increasing either parking rates or transit fares to address the situation would be counterproductive, community discussion to identify the least impactful service cuts will begin at an open house on Nov. 1. This situation is deeply ironic, because Durango’s transit system recently received an award for being the best medium-sized transit system in Colorado.

The transit cuts are symptomatic of ongoing and looming fiscal challenges. Ideally, we would expand transit service, but even to maintain current service levels would require additional revenue. Likewise, the limited budget available for streets projects continues a multi-year trend of decreasing investment. To maintain what we have would require more than $2 million per year, but this year’s budget allocates just $650,000. Further continuation of this trend would ultimately lead to much greater future costs, as exemplified by the $17 million cost of the Florida Road reconstruction. Beyond these essentially operational needs, unfunded capital needs described for the community during the recent Colorado Cities and Towns Week total some $200 million.

The impending collision between the cost of maintaining high quality operations by the city of Durango into the future, and the willingness and ability of residents and businesses to pay for them, represents a powerful example of a “wicked” problem. Such a conflict of values cannot be resolved by simply applying improved efficiency or leveraging additional expertise. It requires deep engagement of the community in envisioning our future, setting priorities and evaluating ways and means.

The city already has addressed the need for capital improvement in essential utility infrastructure with increased fees. Further, giving top priority to public safety, the November ballot asks citizens to vote on a small increase in property taxes to maintain and improve services from the Durango Fire Protection District.

What about looming needs for transit services, streets, facilities and affordable housing? The dialogue initiated during Colorado Cities and Towns week in September was the first step in engaging the community in a critical conversation about civic priorities. I will report on the outcome of the September survey in a future column, as a prelude to 2018 discussions about the city’s fiscal future.

Now that you have finished your coffee, check that you have your ballot and then please vote “yes” on Ballot Issue 2A or 4A.

Dick White is the mayor of Durango, a position rotating among members of city council. Reach him at