Durango city councilors began crafting the wording for a potential tax-increase question on the November ballot.
At a work session Tuesday, councilors suggested general wording be refined to be as specific as possible to address deficits projected to grow to $2.3 million a year in 2027, beginning with a budget shortfall of $100,000 in 2020.
“We don’t want to make it lengthy, but we want to be as specific as possible and avoid having generalities,” Councilor Chris Bettin said of the final product that would be presented to voters.
Councilors left the discussion about whether to ask for a sales tax increase, a property tax increase or a combination of the two until a work session slated for Aug. 14.
Final adoption of ballot wording and the specific tax increases to go before voters in November would occur at the council’s meeting Aug. 21. The tax increase would likely extend for 25 years and pay for police and public safety needs; street maintenance; building maintenance; projected operational shortfalls; improvements to curbs, gutters, sidewalks and storm drainage; and meeting federal accessibility standards
City Manager Ron LeBlanc said County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Parker has been alerted that the city could include a tax increase proposal on the November ballot.
“I’m wondering if we should spell it out even more, that this money is for a police station,” Mayor Sweetie Marbury said when looking at ballot language that said increased taxes would go toward “public safety.”
Durango Police Chief Karman Afzal said the current police station was built in the 1940s, remodeled in the ’70s and much of the work was done ad hoc by police officers as the department doubled in size to 50 officers since it first occupied the building. The department, he added, is projected to need eight additional officers in the next two years.
Two days ago, an aging water line broke in the back of the building, exemplifying the kind of problems police are dealing with.
“No, you’re right,” Marbury said. “It’s a Cracker Jack box out there,” she said of the current building.
The estimated cost to build a new police headquarters is $19 million. A new police station was identified as the top need for the city in a public engagement process that began last year and continued through spring.
Other top priorities identified by the public were street maintenance and improvements and park maintenance.
Beyond $19 million for a new police headquarters, the city has a long list of construction projects. It estimates it needs $2 million annually for street maintenance, between $3 million and $4 million a year for street reconstruction and between $750,000 and $1 million annually for stormwater improvements.
Also, city officials estimate they need $15 million to upgrade other buildings.
Projected operational shortfalls and construction and maintenance needs are estimated to require $8.6 million to $10 million annually.
Levi Lloyd, director of city operations, noted the fix the city is in: Road maintenance and improvements were cut in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008, and money has never been found to make up for the deferred projects.
“Preventive maintenance is much less expensive than a complete rebuild,” Lloyd told councilors.
Many Durango roads, he said, are falling perilously close to needing complete rebuilds. Proper maintenance he said would extend the life of pavement 20 years.
“If we don’t fund properly for infrastructure maintenance, we are setting ourselves up for failure,” he said.
Money from the general fund to cover maintenance and improvements for existing city buildings, roads, equipment and other capital assets was $2.1 million in 2017, about two-thirds of what’s needed to adequately keep up with needs, LeBlanc said.
“We’re consuming our infrastructure faster than we’re maintaining and replacing it,” he said, “and that will result in a big problem in the future.”
Finance Director Julie Brown said the city has kept computer equipment in use beyond its lifespan. It has reached the point, she said, that the city is discovering cables are no longer made for its aging digital equipment.
Keeping aging computer equipment provides a cost savings, but it also makes the city more vulnerable to cyberattacks.
“We don’t want to be on the front page of the newspaper – that somebody got into our network,” she said.
While some Parks and Recreation Department assets such as the Community Recreation Center and open space acquisition are covered by sales tax increases passed in 2005 and 2015, maintenance of legacy parks is not.
Councilor Dick White said Durangoans have prioritized parks, and now it’s clear maintenance has to be given a higher priority.
“We have as a community invested heavily in our parks. We’ve won prizes for it,” he said. “Now, we’re seeing there are costs.”
Staff members also searched for cost savings.
One idea was to reduce the amount of wording in legals published in The Durango Herald. Legals in classified advertising would refer only to an internet address where readers could go online to get specific details. But the suggested change would save only $15,000 annually.
Another idea, popular with the public, was to halt spending on public art, but that would save only tens of thousands of dollars on maintenance needs for a $2 million collection.
A final initiative that might be pursued is an increase in user fees, but those proposed increases would add less than $200,000 annually to city revenues.