As another decade comes to a close, many longtime newsmakers in Durango and Southwest Colorado wrote final chapters in careers that have shaped the region.
In January, Former La Plata County Manager Joanne Spina retired after serving in the public sector for three decades.
Former Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc left in early October after almost 12 years on the job.
And on New Year’s Eve, Matt Taylor will leave his position at Worldpay after leading the payment-processing firm since its startup days as Mercury 16 years ago.
But plenty of issues remain unresolved as Durango enters a new decade.
Here is a look back at ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies from 2019:
La Plata County
Budget evens out: After years of dramatic declines, La Plata County’s finances apparently evened out for the 2020 budget.
Since 2010, La Plata County’s property tax revenue has declined about 50% – from $29.4 million to $14.9 million in 2018 – after a steep drop in natural gas prices.
As a result, La Plata County warned about reductions in services, staff and maintenance projects such as roads. Officials say the county is now in a “healthy position” to make modest investments in services and staffing. Reports show revenue is up about 2.7% from last year to $63 million.
New county manager: In April, La Plata County selected a new county manager.
Chuck Stevens replaced Joanne Spina, who retired in January after a three-decade run in the public sector.
Stevens, who had been serving as assistant county manager, beat out 60 candidates. Since then, he has led the county through a 2020 budget process that saw modest reinvestments for the first time in years and has navigated a controversial land-use code process.
District plans: It took two years, but La Plata County’s district plans were formally finalized in 2019.
For the past two years, La Plata County staff and residents have been working to update the county’s 12 district plans, which allow small communities to establish visions about growth in their neighborhoods.
In some districts, the process was less controversial. But most residents agree the documents will define growth in their neighborhood for years. The district plans will also influence the larger rewrite of the land-use code in 2020.
Ballot measure 1A: Durango voters approved a 0.5% sales tax increase by a slim margin to raise $4.7 million in 2019 to pay for construction and maintenance of streets, alleys, curbs and gutters. Residents registered two political committees on either side of the issue, which voters approved 2,305 to 2,110.
City Council election: Kim Baxter and Barbara Noseworthy took office on Durango City Council and got right to work. Their campaigns focused on running the city more efficiently and economically. They have, at times, clashed with staff members and other councilors over critical city decisions – and City Council made dozens of split decisions.
City manager settlement: Former City Manager Ron LeBlanc and Durango City Council agreed to end his contract in early October. The announcement came after months of speculation about his ethics and under criticism from two new city councilors. The Durango Board of Ethics called a hearing about LeBlanc’s real estate agreement with Durango Land and Homes, owned by City Councilor Chris Bettin, just before the settlement.
2020 budget: City Council asked municipal staff to scrutinize the city manager’s proposed 2020 budget and its $94 million in spending. The number has since been whittled to about $87 million after staff members began to compare proposed expenditures with average annual spending in the past five years. Interim City Manager Amber Blake said staff found a number of “errors” in the document after former Finance Director Julie Brown resigned in the wake of a criminal investigation into misappropriation of public funds.
BayfieldThe Bayfield Board of Trustees wrestled with a variety of social issues, from vaping to free speech in 2019.
Raising the age to smoke: The town considered raising the legal age to buy smoking products from 18 to 21. The policy change stalled when health advocates suggested Bayfield add retail licensing language. Trustees will vote on an updated resolution in 2020.
Confederate flag: A float flew the Confederate flag during the annual Fourth of July parade. Trustees and community members said the flag sent a negative message about Bayfield, and town trustees requested staff consult with a First Amendment rights lawyer to discuss options for next year’s parade.
School board change: The Bayfield School District Board of Education faced a nearly complete turnover during the November elections with four out of five seats open. Three new members were elected to the board, while incumbent Mike Foutz started a new term as board president.
LGTBQ+ in the classroom: Bayfield schools also wrestled with LGTBQ+ lessons in classrooms. A student requested that a teacher add a rainbow flag to other student-provided classroom decorations, prompting brief tension in classes and opposition and support from the public.
Library support: Pine River Library received a mill levy increase from voters during the 2019 elections after years of budget cuts and belt-tightening. Leading up to the vote, the library was unsure it would succeed after a 2018 mill levy increase lost by nine votes.
Forest Lakes upheaval: North of Bayfield, the Forest Lakes Metropolitan District was beset with conflict. The entire district office staff, the district manager and office manager quit on the same day. The district board hired two new staff members in November.
VIP visit: Gov. Jared Polis visited Ignacio to announce it had been awarded two Colorado Rural Technical Assistance Programs. One program puts the town on track to becoming a state-certified creative district, which opens up funding and economic opportunities. The other program supports Ignacio as it creates a marketable identity to attract investment and tourism.
The state accepted the Southern Ute Indian Tribe into another RTAP effort, which focuses on small business development.
Water wars: The battle over water and wastewater utility rates between Ignacio and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe came to a head in October. The tribal government, the town’s water utility provider, increased water rates by more than 90% and wastewater rates by more than 50%. The town pursued other water providers and adjusted rate structures in response, while community members raised concerns about the rate change process.
LPFD financials: The Los Pinos Fire Protection District approached a financial cliff. The district has the lowest mill levy rates among fire districts in La Plata County. The oil and gas industry’s downturn cut property values by millions since 2010, which further depletes district income from property taxes. The district could run out of savings in two to four years.
Women in charge: Women took the majority on the Southern Ute Tribal Council for the first time after a runoff election in December. The Tribal Council is focused on education, particularly Ute language education, tribal services and financial planning.
Interior secretary visits: U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt met with law enforcement and victim-assistance professionals during the 27th annual Indian Country Conference at the Sky Ute Casino. Bernhardt prioritized cases involving missing and murdered Native American women and enforcement of illegal drug use on reservations.
Ignacio shooting death: Robert Dean Rose admitted in late 2019 he shot and killed Mark Wayman at his home north of Ignacio. Law enforcement found the body May 13 and arrested Rose on suspicion of murder May 19 after he was spotted at Starbucks in downtown Durango. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Dec. 6. The 50-year-old Cortez resident could face 48 years in prison.
9-R Superintendent contract extended: The Durango School District 9-R board formally backed Superintendent Dan Snowberger early this year and extended his contract through 2021 after months of controversy.
The board said Snowberger had earned the trust of principals and the support of many town leaders.
Before the board’s formal support, a group of residents, employees and former employees called for Snowberger to be fired, claiming he has provided inaccurate information about his career in education. Snowberger said most of the allegations were not true.
Snowberger also faced complaints from a parent who claimed he had mishandled an investigation into the sexual assaults of a student.
No armed guards: The Durango School District 9-R board decided against arming school guards with firearms this fall after months of discussion. Board members weighed the possibility of arming guards with law enforcement experience who would be highly trained in firearm use.
A nonscientific survey showed 51.7% of respondents supported arming guards.
Funding for education, transportation fails: Proposition CC, a statewide measure that could have provided millions in funding to K-12 schools, higher education and transportation, failed to pass in November.
The measure would have allowed the state to keep surplus tax revenue rather than refund taxpayers, as required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
If the measure had passed, $264 million collected in the 2019-20 fiscal year could have been divided evenly among K-12, higher education and transportation.
Uranium: In 2019, it was revealed about 115 properties in the Durango area were missed during the cleanup of uranium mill tailings in the 1980s and could still contain radioactive waste.
In the fall, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told homeowners they should request a free survey of their property. The tailings were used in the mid-1900s as construction material.
The state health department continues to look for a temporary site to store the waste until it can be removed permanently.
King II: GCC Energy’s King II coal mine will live on at least 20 years; a request for expansion was approved by the Bureau of Land Management.
Mine officials said without an expansion, it would run out of coal supplies in a few years. The expansion is expected to open up an estimated 12 million tons of coal.
Animas River: The effects of the 416 Fire will apparently be long-lasting.
In 2019, Colorado Parks and Wildlife found that debris flows from the 416 burn scar the year before killed 80% of the fish in the Animas River.
Because fish can’t reproduce in the waterway, the river must be stocked every year by CPW.
Wildlife officials repeated that fire is a natural part of the landscape, and the river is likely to recover in a few years.
Archaeological finds on Hwy. 550: A massive network of Native American ruins was found just south of Durango, but the sites are in the path of the new realignment of U.S. Highway 550.
The Colorado Department of Transportation said the ruins were discovered as part of the reconstruction of the Farmington Hill-Bridge to Nowhere construction project.
The scale of the findings shocked researchers. Archaeologists mapped the villages and sent artifacts to a lab for study. Tribe members reburied the human remains near the site.
416 Fire: In July, the U.S. Forest Service named the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as the cause of the 416 Fire.
For almost a year, public pressure mounted on the Forest Service to name a cause of the fire, which burned an estimated 54,000 acres north of Durango in June 2018. The D&SNG denied it caused the fire, prompting the U.S. government to sue the railroad for $25 million to recover costs and damages related to the fire. That process is going through the courts and could take years to settle.
Matt Taylor retires: Matt Taylor, the 44-year-old Durangoan who has led what he called a “fairy-tale” life, becoming perhaps the most significant player in diversifying Southwest Colorado’s tourism-based economy, announced he would retire from Worldpay on New Year’s Eve.
The executive vice president of global integrated payments and small-business commerce at Worldpay’s 350-employee Durango office plans to spend time with his daughters and enjoy Southwest Colorado.
New Year’s Eve will begin Taylor’s one-year noncompete clause he signed as part of his departure. In a year, Taylor said he would begin looking for “the next big thing,” another business opportunity he can develop in Durango.
Durango’s next big thing: MUNIRevs, a firm started by the former finance director for the town of Mountain Village, may be Durango’s next big homegrown business, the likes of Mercury and GitPrime.
Erin Neer, who formed MUNIRevs in 2011 in her Dolores home after working for a decade in Mountain Village, said she saw a need for streamlining and modernizing municipalities’ collection of sales and lodging taxes as well as for keeping track of license and permit requirements.
MUNIRevs, which now employs 20 people and is on Main Avenue in Durango, saw sales grow 40% annually from 2011 to 2018. In 2019, the firm saw 200% growth. Neer anticipates the company will grow another 200% in 2020.
GitPrime sells for $170 million: GitPrime, a Durango homegrown startup that creates software to help engineering and computer programming teams increase productivity, was acquired in May by Pluralsight of Farmington, Utah, for $170 million in cash.
In November 2018, fueled by a $10.5 million infusion of venture capital, GitPrime announced it planned to double its workforce of 60 employees in the next year. About half of GitPrime’s employees telecommuted and half worked at its headquarters in the Main Mall, 835 Main Ave.
In the past year, GitPrime has used $10.5 million in venture capital it raised in 2018 to expand its 1,800-square-foot office in the Main Mall to 8,800 square feet to handle its burgeoning workforce.
BP says bye-bye: BP American Production Co. sold its stake in the San Juan Basin natural gas and oil field to European renewable energy company IKAV.
IKAV was founded in 2010 by Constantin von Wasserschleben of Hamburg, Germany, where the company is headquartered.
BP, which operated 1,390 wells in Colorado and 2,440 wells in New Mexico, wanted to pull out of the San Juan Basin and divest up to $6 billion in properties to buy U.S. shale oil and gas assets in other regions. Since 2011, IKAV has made more than 50 individual investments, mostly in renewables, with 500 megawatts of solar and 800 megawatts of wind projects.
Crime and courts
Redwine trial delays: The trial of Mark Redwine, accused of second-degree murder and child abuse in the 2012 disappearance of his son, Dylan, was scheduled for February, then June, then September. Then his public defender, John Moran, was accused and cleared in a misdemeanor domestic violence case. The trial is now set for April.
New police chief: Former Durango Police Chief Kamran Afzal left the department less than two years after he arrived, leaving the law enforcement in the hands of Cmdr. Bob Brammer. Brammer, a recent FBI academy graduate, served as interim chief and, after a search, was chosen to lead the force.
Lack of resources: La Plata County Jail’s daily population swelled to an average of more than 200 in 2019, and Sheriff’s Office deputies are working overtime. Durango Police Department got the raises it requested, but the agency struggled with turnover all year. And the DPD wants a new station. Passing on
Bob Dolphin: Bob Dolphin, 84, the longtime Fort Lewis College administrator who led the build-out of the campus in the 1990s, died in Phoenix in October.
Dolphin started at FLC in 1984 as dean of the School of Business Administration. Two years later, he was named vice president of business and finance, and he led the school to a balanced budget in a time of financial upheaval. He served as president of the school from 2002 to 2004.
Lon Erwin: Lon Erwin, 78, a longtime leader of Durango nonprofits, died in December in Farmington, after struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
Erwin was the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of La Plata County, the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado and Community Connections, a nonprofit that serves individuals people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
While leading Community Connections, Erwin closed a sheltered workshop in favor of integrating those with disabilities into the community.
At the Community Foundation he established an emergency fund to support businesses and employees after the 2008 fire that destroyed several businesses on Main Avenue.
Nancy Fisher: Durango philanthropist Nancy Fisher, 78, well-known for her work with Music in the Mountains and the San Juan Symphony, died in May of pancreatic cancer.
Fisher was an educator and businesswoman who founded Albuquerque-based Brokerage Services Inc., a third-party administrator for employer group health plans, with her husband, Jim Fisher. In 2004, the couple moved to Durango, where Nancy became well-known in arts and music circles.
Mickey Hogan: Former Durango Mayor G. Michael “Mickey” Hogan, 89, an integral figure in Durango’s development in the second half of the 20th century, died in September.
Hogan, a businessman, served on Durango City Council and was involved in the development of community institutions, including Purgatory Resort, Hillcrest Golf Club, the hospital that is now Mercy Regional Medical Center and the Durango-La Plata County Airport.
He helped develop Durango’s ski culture by raising money for the first chairlift at Purgatory and helping to run five national skiing championships starting in 1967.
Greg Ryder: Well-known Durango singer-songwriter Greg Ryder, 67, died in a head-on car collision in April.
Ryder was a longtime, regular performer at the Diamond Belle Saloon and The Office Spiritorium in the Strater Hotel. He also was a former member of the Bar D Wranglers, playing with the iconic cowboy band for about a decade starting in 1989.
Ed Zink: Ed Zink, a founder of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists and longtime La Plata County rancher, died in October from complications of a heart attack. He was 71.
Hundreds of residents attended Zink’s memorial service to honor the Durango native, who was a pillar of the local community, owner of Waterfall Ranch, longtime advocate for mountain biking and chairman of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic organizing committee for decades. He also led efforts to bring the first World Mountain Bike Championships to Durango in 1990 and organized the event.