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White: Thanksgiving reflections on people and place

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Friday, Nov. 24, 2017 4:47 PM
Dick White

Over breakfast each day, my wife and I give thanks for spending another day together in Durango and for the friends and family near and far who enrich our lives.

The phrase “in Durango” is central for us, so on this Thanksgiving weekend, let me identify aspects that make us grateful for this place. It starts with the wonderful natural environment and the moderate four-season climate, the resultant recreational opportunities and the determined facility development – private and public alike – that provides ready access.

The built environment further includes our vibrant downtown, diverse neighborhoods, Fort Lewis College and Southwest Colorado Community College, plus museums and galleries. An observant visitor can perceive all these things and they draw many tourists, some of whom return to become neighbors.

Within the external environment is the human landscape that truly sets Durango apart: friendly and creative people, innovative businesses, a broad and diverse nonprofit sector supported by an engaged public and a capable and collaborative public sector that underpins the economic infrastructure we all rely on.

A phrase that encapsulates the diverse elements that make Durango such an appealing home is “sense of place.” A crucial issue for the community is how we develop a more populous Durango and La Plata County – something that demographic trends will dictate no matter how we react – while maintaining the community character that we all recognize and value.

In my campaign for city council in 2011, I used these words: “My goal will be to preserve Durango’s sense of place, so that the evolving community of the future will still hold for our children and theirs the unique value that we experience today.” I now know that my fellow councilors and city staff share this view.

As I have written in earlier columns, we face challenges in fulfilling our community aspirations. For example, the comprehensive plan city council adopted in April has five areas that need significant new funding: housing, transit, facilities, arts and culture and stormwater management.

Moreover, the anemic growth of sales tax revenue this year has led city staff to project that without more robust growth, the cost of simply maintaining current city services, particularly including our streets, will exceed available revenue by about 2020.

In polling about possible revenue sources during Colorado Cities and Towns Week in September, the most popular choice was reprogramming the 2005 half-cent sales tax to support more capital improvements without a tax increase. A new half-cent sales tax also received support. In the open-ended comments, taxes and fees garnered the most responses, with numerous suggestions of raising the lodgers tax, along with some superficially appealing, but likely illegal, tax schemes (such as a real-estate transfer tax that is specifically prohibited by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights).

Some remarks indicated little understanding of the magnitudes of project needs compared with suggested cost savings from other city activities. Others noted the financial stress already experienced by residents from recent water and sewer fee increases, while some admitted that the city’s property tax is low.

The survey represents the beginning of a process that will continue into 2018. What are the right priorities? Are there creative funding sources we might leverage to multiply the impact of local dollars? What is the best way to raise those local dollars? How do we identify win-win solutions and avoid win-lose choices?

Understanding preferences and objections from different segments of the community will help us understand the frequently conflicting values that motivate individual preferences. Therein lies an opportunity to expand the common ground provided by our love for this place and the commitment to building a Durango that our children and grandchildren will love as we do.

Development of a degree of consensus across the community around priorities and potential ways and means would represent an enormous achievement. I hope that in 2018, we will be able to give thanks to the community for that accomplishment.

In closing, I thank the voters for your overwhelming support for new property taxes for the Durango Fire Protection District. Clearly, successful future initiatives must have a similarly clear demonstration of need.

May we all enjoy a safe and happy holiday season, blessed by peace, warm relationships and opportunities to relish all the things that make Durango its unique self.

Dick White is the mayor of Durango, a position rotating among members of city council. He was re-elected in 2015 and will serve as mayor until April 2018, when he will be succeeded by now-Mayor Pro Tem Sweetie Marbury. Reach him at DickWhite@DurangoGov.org.

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