Thomas Avenue is failing. And it will fail, city officials said, after voters rejected a ballot question that would have raised sales and property taxes to pay for street projects and law enforcement.
Voters made it clear this week by rejecting ballot measure 2A, by a margin of more than 20 percent, that they don’t want an increase in property and sales taxes. While the decision gives the city some idea about what residents want, or don’t want, insofar as taxes are concerned, it doesn’t solve the city’s dilemma of where to find $8 million to $10 million annually to keep up with city building and infrastructure needs, said Assistant City Manager Amber Blake.
“The only way to generate that much revenue is a tax increase,” Blake said.
The ballot measure came after months of public meetings and a statistically valid survey that found 58 percent of respondents supported a sales-tax increase and 33 percent supported a property-tax increase to fund long-term city needs. The logic in combining the two kinds of taxes was to get as many people as possible to vote for it, said Mayor Sweetie Marbury. But that didn’t work as expected.
Increasing Durango sales tax and property tax
A political organization called Citizens for Durango’s Future sent mailers to residents saying, “the City of Durango is not broke, it simply needs to better allocate existing revenues.” The mailer suggested higher taxes would lead to higher rents, a problem for a city with affordable housing issues.
“The folks who participated in the process – there was a sentiment that said this is a good idea,” Blake said of the proposed tax increases. “It’s clear that there’s a contingent of the population we were unable to reach.”
The tax measure, which asked voters to raise sales tax by 0.55 percent and property tax by 5.4 mills, was intended to pay for street and sidewalk capital projects, a new police station and more officers. The city still has money in its budget to pay for minor street maintenance, like crack seals, but streets that are already failing won’t be fixed, Blake said.
Eight roads in Durango were in “very poor” condition when the city performed its pavement condition study earlier this year. Seventy-two roads were in “poor condition.” Many of those roads will not receive maintenance – it’s more cost-effective to fix streets that are in better condition, Blake said.
In response to voters’ decision, city councilors will gather in a study session to discuss what projects should be prioritized with such a tight budget, Marbury said. The council will also host “listening sessions,” she said, to hear from Durango residents about how they think the city’s budget problem can be solved.
Blake attributed part of the reason for why 2A failed to an under-appreciation of the importance of streets and sidewalks. She also said the general public is often not privy to municipal budgeting, something that keeps people from understanding potential impacts of not passing a tax increase.
“There are Friends of the Library, but there are no Friends of the Streets,” Blake said.
It may have been a bad year to ask for a tax increase. Voters rejected multiple statewide tax measures, including propositions to generate more funding for roads and schools.
Jasper Welch, a former mayor of Durango, said the city should have enlisted the help of an independent citizen group to evaluate and champion any tax increases, similar to what has been done in the past with similar tax increases. He said he suggested the idea to Marbury and Blake, but the suggestion was made late in the game – the question had already been put on the ballot.
Marbury said she liked the idea of forming a citizens group. She plans to recommend assembling a committee to vet proposals to fix the $8 million to $10 million revenue problem. People are already calling to volunteer, she said.
“Hopefully, if there is a next time around,” Marbury said of raising taxes, “more people will step up to the plate.”