The beginning of the year is always a time of high activity and change at La Plata County, and 2019 is delivering large doses of both.
In January, we said goodbye to County Manager Joanne Spina, who retired after 30 years with the county, and bid farewell to Commissioner Brad Blake. We then welcomed Clyde Church to the Board of County Commissioners, and Chuck Stevens to the role of interim county manager. As in all years, the commissioners’ roles rotate, making me the chair for 2019.
We have a busy year ahead of us and are wasting no time digging in to the challenges we face. At the commissioners’ first business meeting of the year, the county’s Long-Term Finance Committee made a presentation whose title alone got our attention: “Recognizing La Plata County’s fiscal reality: Recommendations for fiscal sustainability.”
The analysis the group presented was thorough and stark. La Plata County’s operating revenues are increasingly constrained by forces outside of our control: The Gallagher Amendment is reducing the amount of taxable value on residential property, even as property values rise, and advances in natural gas production technology have dramatically reduced its price globally as it has become a byproduct of harvesting oil.
This is a double-whammy for La Plata County, because local production is in decline as our gas field plays out, and the San Juan Basin is not oil-rich. Our county mill levy, set in the 1980s, is not sufficient to offset these external forces working against the revenue streams necessary to keep the county running, and though we have seen modest increases in sales tax, those upticks pale in comparison to the precipitous decline we have seen in property tax revenue.
This was not new or good news from the Long Term Finance Committee, and it got our attention because this group of volunteers packs a formidable punch.
The committee’s seven members each has decades of experience in a range of financial backgrounds including oil and gas industry analysis, certified public accounting, banking, corporate finance and asset management. The Board of County Commissioners appoints the committee, which meets monthly to review revenue and expenditures trends with a view to identifying potential financial threats and opportunities; to make recommendations to maintain a structurally balanced budget and preserve the county’s fiscal soundness; and to review capital improvement programs and the recommendations for funding those improvements.
The group takes this job very seriously and delves into great detail and analysis to support its findings. We learned that the per capita property tax paid by county residents has fallen by 55 percent since 2010: That year, the per capita property tax paid was $581; in 2017, it was $277. We learned while the population has grown by 10 percent – more than 6,000 – since 2010, bringing increased demand for services from the county, such as road maintenance, sheriff’s office patrols and calls for service, and building permits and inspections, to name a few.
At the same time, because our operating revenue is falling so dramatically, the number of employees available to provide those services has fallen as well – from 430 in 2010 to fewer than 400 in 2018. This challenges our employees to do more work with fewer resources, and they have risen to the task, but the Long Term Finance Committee made one thing clear to us on Jan. 15: This is not a sustainable equation.
The group also made clear it is not for lack of sound fiscal management. Despite declining revenues and increasing demand for service, La Plata County has held its operating revenues relatively flat over the years – relying on innovation, efficiency, and a lot of hard work to do the growing job of serving La Plata County’s growing community. This strategy has saved the county significant dollars, but the growing constraints that the Gallagher Amendment will have on property tax revenue, coupled with ours being the fourth-lowest mill levy among Colorado’s 64 counties, means we have a structural problem that La Plata County cannot easily solve.
Armed now with this knowledge, the Board of County Commissioners must decide how to approach a solution to our operating revenue challenges. We know what the problem is and will now turn to seeking a way to solve it. This will be a community-wide effort because the work we do at La Plata County affects all of us as residents and citizens.
We will need your help, your ideas and your investment in La Plata County’s future as we sort through the challenges and seek opportunities to address them. We look forward to the community conversations that are to come and hope to hear your thoughts.
Julie Westendorff is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970)382-6219.