Budget issues, taxes and better spending practices were the resounding themes for Durango City Council candidates at a forum Monday hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Four candidates – Kim Baxter, Jaime McMillan, Barbara Noseworthy and Marcos Wisner – are vying for two seats in the April 2 mail-in election.
Questions submitted by some of the 45 attendees centered on how the city can live within its means as budget cuts hamper basic services such as maintaining roads, an issue that prompted the city to ask voters, also in April’s election, for a sales tax increase.
The proposed sales tax increase, known as ballot measure 1A, would put a half-cent increase on the dollar. It would increase sales taxes 50 cents on a $100 purchase. The tax would be in place for a 10-year period for road improvement projects.
The only candidate who supports 1A, Wisner, said the sales tax increase would spread the burden of needed funds for roads among the entire community.
“We can afford to take this tax increase,” he said.
Other candidates, however, said the city should exhaust all other options before asking voters for a tax increase, which would place Durango’s tax rate at 8.5 percent, on the high end of other Colorado towns and on par with communities such as Boulder.
McMillan said he’d rather fix budget problems by increasing city revenue by encouraging business growth. He proposed suspending all licensing fees for new businesses and allowing anyone who owns a home to rent it out as a vacation rental through sites like AirBnB.
Baxter said she is not “advocating against” ballot measure 1A but said the city did not listen to its residents when another tax increase in the November 2018 election was heavily voted down. She said other solutions need to be explored before asking residents for more money.
“I don’t want to see sales tax increase after sales tax increase after sales tax increase,” she said.
Noseworthy said she is opposed to 1A and that the community needs to have a “deep discussion” on how to address budgetary woes.
Baxter said the city’s revenues and expenses need to be better analyzed, and every department must be made more effective and efficient. She said a city sales tax on internet sales needs to be “pursued with vigor and put into our coffers.”
Noseworthy said she would like to see a long-term financial planning committee be formed that would report to city councilors to help guide and provide input on budget matters. She said forming the committee would also help restore trust with some residents who believe the city does not spend wisely.
“We need to be as transparent as possible, and accountable,” she said.
Wisner said he’d like to see the city engage in more long-term planning so the city can anticipate future needs. He said he opposed diverting money for road maintenance needs from the Parks and Recreation Department, which received a tax increase in 2015.
“This is our crown jewel,” Wisner said. “This is what makes Durango special.”
Advocates, opponents talk 1AAfter the candidates forum, a supporter and opponent of ballot measure 1A each made their case for and against the tax increase.
Durango resident John Ritchey, who spoke against 1A, said the increase in taxes is no small sum for low- and middle-income residents. He said the 2015 ballot measure that raised taxes to benefit the Parks and Recreation Department to the tune of $140 million should be diverted to help fix the city’s roads.
Ritchey said a total of $324 million will have been directed to the Parks and Recreation Department through various tax increases over the years since 1999.
“We need to take a fresh look at city finances, particularly (the Parks and Recreation Department),” he said.
Christina Rinderle, a former city councilor who spoke in favor of 1A, said the tax increase would serve as a sort of stopgap solution to the city’s budget problems, allowing the city to address immediate needs. Once the tax increase sunsets, the city will have had more time to consider long-term solutions.
Rinderle said it costs eight times as much to rebuild a road than maintain it. Each year, the city fails to maintain its roads, she said it costs $2 million to $4 million the next year.
“That’s why there’s an urgency now,” she said.