Only one of the four candidates seeking election to Durango City Council supports a sales tax increase that voters must decide in April.
Two candidates – Kim Baxter and Jaime McMillan – said they oppose the ballot measure that would raise taxes for street improvements; candidate Marcos Wisner said he supports it, but with reluctance.
Barbara Noseworthy did not attend the forum but sent Durango resident Anne Markward in her stead. Markward said Noseworthy opposes ballot measure 1A.
Baxter said there needs to be more conversation in the community before voters are asked to approve a tax increase.
The candidates are competing for two open seats on City Council.
The city needs to use about $2.5 million from the general fund – money that is currently being used to pay for parks and recreation – to pay for streets while further discussions are held on ways to fix the budget without having to raise taxes, Baxter said. Markward, speaking for Noseworthy, said there needs to be more community involvement and coordination in deciding how to fix the city’s finances.
McMillan said the proposed sales-tax increase would put Durango in the top tier of sales tax rates among communities around Colorado. If approved, ballot measure 1A would increase sales tax by 0.5 percent, bringing total sales tax in Durango to 8.4 percent. The best way to fix budget issues is to target revenue growth of 5 percent per year by encouraging new businesses to come up with the money needed to pay for streets, McMillan said.
Wisner said he supports the tax measure, but it is not an ideal situation. He said he wishes the city could save raising taxes for a “rainy day,” but with city streets in the condition they are in, that “rainy day” is now. The last thing he wants to see happen is a transfer of funds from the Parks and Recreation Department to pay for streets, he said.
Also at Tuesday’s forum, hosted by the La Plata County Democrats, four community members debated the merits of the proposed tax increase. Former Mayor Christina Rinderle and city Councilor Chris Bettin argued in support of the tax increase, while former council candidate Dave McHenry and Durango resident John Simpson argued against the ballot measure.
Rinderle said the 2018 ballot measure 2A, which would have raised sales and property taxes for 25 years to pay for street infrastructure, law enforcement and city buildings, was too broad, asked for a property tax that hit businesses too hard and the tax was for too long a term. Ballot measure 1A, she said, keeps it simple. It also provides accountability and transparency through establishing a financial advisory board appointed by City Council.
City Councilor Chris Bettin said 1A is pre-emptive; expenditures won’t eclipse revenues until 2020. But when those lines do cross, the city has a few options: ask the community to raise taxes for more revenue, cut services or reallocate funds. City services have suffered in past years, with transit service being cut and library hours being shortened. Parks and recreation investments have demonstrable returns on investment and should not be reallocated, he said.
City resident John Simpson, who created a small-issues committee that opposed the 2018 tax measure, said Durango has become less affordable in the past decade because of decisions made by city government. Parks and recreation money is not sacred, as some people have suggested, and should be moved to pay for more essential needs. People won’t move away if the city doesn’t build a 35th park, but they will if the cost of living is too high, Simpson said.
McHenry, who has formed a small-issue committee in opposition to ballot measure 1A, said the city needs to “straighten out” its priorities. The city doesn’t need more open space, and money dedicated for that purpose in 2005 could be reallocated and used for more important things, like roads, he said.
Bobbie Chambers, who has lived in Durango for 1½ years and used to serve on a city council in Laguna Beach, California, said she’s familiar with many of the issues candidates discussed, from homelessness to attracting business. It was clear to her who had more experience, and she was most impressed with Baxter and encouraged Wisner, the youngest candidate, to try other city offices before jumping into City Council.
Jay Culver, a 20-year resident of La Plata County and former political science professor, said that although he can’t vote in city of Durango elections, he attended because he’s in Durango every day and is interested in what will happen with the council race. Forums give Culver “an emotional feel” for candidates, a sense of the candidates’ vision for Durango and what their ties are to the city. Everyone who is running is a reasonable candidate, he said, and anyone who is elected will have a tough task in balancing the city’s budget.
The city of Durango’s election day is April 2. Ballots will be mailed to active registered voters March 16. City residents may drop off ballots at the Durango City Clerk’s Office, the La Plata County Administration Building or the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.