White: Working together out of our love for Durango

Friday, March 23, 2018 5:45 PM
Mayor Dick White

I have been honored to serve Durango as Mayor for the last 11 months. One of the privileges that come with the office is this monthly column, an opportunity to explain some of the actions and needs of city government.

Looking back over these essays, I see persistent themes, particularly fiscal issues, climate change and homelessness. They share a common element: They are “wicked problems” that will not yield to methodical scientific approaches because they inherently involve competing values. For example, all Americans support both freedom and security, but if an issue such as gun control involves a trade off between them, some will prioritize freedom and others security, often leading to polarized debate. Such complex problems cannot be “solved,” only managed. The goal of government is to manage such issues better, but we cannot do this without active communication with and from the community.

The phrase “wicked problems” entered the Durango lexicon during discussions about the fiscal challenges facing the community, about which I have written repeatedly. If current trends of revenue and expenses continued, the city’s General Fund would go into the red in 2020. Because we must operate with a balanced budget, the alternatives are to cut services, increase revenue or choose some combination. Moreover, we face about $200 million in identified capital needs. For example, replacement of our aging, overcrowded and substandard police station likely would cost more than $25 million.

The City Council and staff have no crystal ball that magically identifies an optimal path forward. This reality underlies the civic engagement process the city launched with a public workshop on March 1, with others to follow on April 16, May 17 and June 25. The effort includes an online Community Satisfaction Survey and a link where residents can submit questions or comments. Furthermore, teams of city staff trained as facilitators are available for presentations to community groups, from household gatherings to much larger meetings of community organizations. See for details, including video of the March 1 meeting.

Other wicked problems on the immediate city agenda are Lake Nighthorse operations and homelessness.

The Animas-La Plata Project has been controversial in the community for decades. Both the prolonged negotiations over the 2014 Recreation Master Plan and the recent debate about the Lake Nighthorse Operations Plan underscore the conflicting values associated with the reservoir. The adopted operations plan is a first attempt to manage recreation for the maximum benefit to the community. Expect changes as we seek to improve in the future.

Even more challenging is the issue of homelessness, about which I wrote in February. This is a national issue rooted in growing income inequality in the United States, exacerbated by the high cost of housing in Durango. The city already contributes in multiple ways to the social service organizations that serve poor and unsheltered people. However, the immediate issue of camping north of the Tech Center raises a red flag of fire danger as Southwest Colorado comes through a dry winter eerily reminiscent of 2002, the year of the 70,000-acre Missionary Ridge Fire.

The city is prepared to offer space at the Lightner Creek site, immediately to the west of the Dog Park, for a rest area that offers a legal place for homeless individuals to sleep overnight in public, as a federal court ruling requires for enforcement of city and county no-camping ordinances elsewhere. Details of such an operation remain to be finalized with the Sheriff’s Office and the Board of County Commissioners.

Meanwhile, with La Plata County, we plan to commission a strategic plan to enable the community to manage this issue better in the future. Government, however, cannot manage this situation alone. This generous community can find additional ways of helping, even if it amounts to each faith congregation or community service club volunteering to help one or two or a few individuals each.

No action we could take would be all popular across the community, perhaps the most powerful indication that homelessness is a truly wicked problem. However, as we grapple with this issue, let us remember that the wickedness lies in problem itself, not in any individual or agency.

Finally, as I conclude my final column, I thank the community for engagement with the issues that impact our collective future. Let us continue to work together out of our love of Durango to find the best ways possible to address the challenges we face.

Dick White is the mayor of Durango. He will serve as mayor until April 2018 when he will be succeeded by now-Mayor Pro Tem Sweetie Marbury. Reach him at