With La Plata County residents receiving their November ballots in the mail this week, the Durango Fire Protection District and Durango School District 9-R board candidates made a final push to secure constituents’ votes.
The League of Women Voters of La Plata County hosted an election forum Thursday evening at Durango City Hall to educate voters on school board candidates and the proposed property tax increase.
“Our purpose of holding this forum is to help the voters make informed choices,” said Marsha Porter-Norton with the League of Women Voters. “Your vote will not count unless you cast it.”
Durango 9-R School DistrictThree of the five Durango 9-R board seats are up for election, and members typically serve four-year terms. Only District E, which includes the area northeast of downtown and east of the Animas River, is contested.
Nancy Stubbs and Mick Souder, running for Districts A and C, respectively, gave brief introductions at the forum.
District E incumbent Shere Byrd and her opponent, Emily Newcomer, fielded questions about their platforms and the district.
Byrd, a longtime biology professor at Fort Lewis College, touted her experience as an educator and administrator.
“I’m running for school board because it’s time for me to come off the hill and back into the community,” she said. “Whoever you elect should have board experience because it is not an easy thing to do.”
Newcomer is a licensed psychotherapist who owns her own practice, Southwest Psychotherapy, in Durango.
She said she hopes to become the much-needed bridge between the mental health community and the school district.
“I experienced trauma my junior year of high school that led me to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms,” she said. “I am the only mental health professional running for school board. I regularly work with people who are at risk of committing suicide.”
Audience members asked about a range of topics, including Durango 9-R’s anti-bullying policy, teacher salaries and the discussion of hot-button political issues in the classroom.
Newcomer and Byrd agreed that students should be politically informed.
“If we can’t discuss controversial issues in the classroom, then where are we going to discuss it?” Newcomer said. “We need to learn how to discuss charged issues in a respectful way.”
Byrd said it is important for students to do research and form their own opinions on issues outside of what their parents might believe.
“We need to have these discussions,” she said. “In our society now, we can’t talk to one another without screaming and throwing things.”
Durango FireFire Chief Hal Doughty with the Durango Fire Protection District gave a presentation on the mill levy increase, which would support the fire district.
“There are 180 men and women who dedicate their time to ensure there is always someone to call when someone in our community is in need,” he said. “One hundred of those members are people who volunteer their time. I am here representing all of them.”
Voters will see two different questions, depending on where they live, but the increase of 2.5 mills is the same across the district.
If passed, the mill levy increase would increase the annual tax bill for homeowners by $18 per $100,000 value of their home. Commercial property owners would see an increase of $72.50 per $100,000 of property value.
The district covers 325 square miles and includes 16 fire stations. It is 58 miles long, stretching from San Juan County on its northern edge along U.S. Highway 550 to the New Mexico border.
“Every year for the last four years, operational costs exceeded our revenue stream,” Doughty said.
He said that the number of 911 calls continues to increase every year.
Last year, 5,080 emergency calls were received.
“At a time when our call volume mandates that we need to hire more people, our revenue stream is mandating that we cut people,” Doughty said. “We don’t get a choice on how many times the 911 phone rings every day, which is about 15 times.”
If the property tax increase passes, the fire district would eventually be able to increase the number of people working each day from 18 to 26.
“Increasing staff means you wait less time to get emergency assistance,” Doughty said.
One audience member asked Doughty how the fire district would be affected if the mill levy failed to pass.
“I would be forced to potentially reduce staff,” he said. “We come when you call, no questions asked. I’ve been to swarms of bees, and answered a call when someone got a bottle cap stuck on their big toe.”