The city of Durango isn’t the only government feeling the crunch in trying to maintain its roads.
La Plata County’s operating budget, historically, has relied on revenues from property tax, mainly from oil and gas operations. But recent downturns in the industry in the San Juan Basin have caused property tax collections to drop dramatically.
Since 2010, La Plata County’s property tax revenue has declined 50 percent – from $29.4 million to $14.9 million in 2018. As a consequence, the budget losses have affected nearly every department at the county, resulting in cuts to services and staff.
Nowhere else is there a better and more visible example of those cuts than the county’s Road and Bridge Department.
“Road and Bridge faces a crisis in the coming years,” Richard Butler, a member of the county’s Long Term Finance Committee, said earlier this year. “That should be the primary focus going forward.”
La Plata County maintains 220 miles of paved roads and 440 miles of gravel road. But increasingly, it’s harder for Road and Bridge to have the funds necessary to maintain and improve roads.
Doyle Villers, road maintenance superintendent, said the department has had to scale back summer work to make up for the costs incurred during the winter, cutting back resurfacing and chip-and-seal efforts.
“Unfortunately, when you don’t seal asphalt, you get more potholes,” he said. “So it’s a no-win situation.”
Villers said Road and Bridge is trying to spread the impacts of the reduction of services across the county.
“This way, the impact is one shared by all,” he said. “All of us are going to bear the pain of it. That’s the bottom line.”
Road and Bridge has tried to adapt its operation to make up for the loss in its operating budget. But shifting around operations and cutting back on costs can go only so far. The department has two unfilled openings.
“I wish I could tell you we’re doing more with less, but we’re not,” he said. “We’re doing less with less. The reality of where we are doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the overall condition of our infrastructure.”
La Plata County’s roads are, for the most part, in good condition, according to a 2017 study. But roads can deteriorate quickly, and in the long run, it costs more to let a road fall to ruin and have to completely repair it than provide regular maintenance.
The problem is that Road and Bridge is running out of money to perform regular maintenance, Villers said.
A 2017 study determined Road and Bridge would need an operating budget of $4.58 million to maintain its roads over the next five years.
“We need to wake up to how quickly our roads can fall apart based on their current condition,” Villers said.
Where the money comes from is a whole other conversation.
La Plata County commissioners in 2015 and 2016 put a ballot item to voters that would have raised the county’s mill levy – which is the fourth lowest in the state – by 2.4 mills. But both attempts failed.
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said the Long Term Finance Committee’s report found the county could have a negative operating budget as soon as 2021.
“We can’t do that – you have to have a balanced budget,” she said. “It raises some significant challenges for the community.”
Calls to La Plata County commissioners Clyde Church and Julie Westendorff were not returned.
Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said there are two options: keep cutting services or raise revenues through tax increases.
“We have cut to the bone,” she said.
Lachelt said more than 20 positions remain vacant at the county and the list goes on about how the county has tried to reduce costs. She said no decision has been made, but it’s being discussed whether to ask voters to raise the mill levy again in November.
“We are in an anti-tax sentiment era,” Lachelt said, “but it’s a dire situation. We absolutely need to have another conversation with this community.”
Villers, who has worked for La Plata County for 40 years, said winter weather hit Road and Bridge especially hard, which caused the department to burn through funds set aside for summer work. And there is concern about money at the beginning of next winter, before the budget resets.
“I don’t want to be the doom and gloom guy, but protecting and improving our infrastructure has to be addressed,” he said. “Or what you see today will continue to get worse.”