Make La Plata County more business-friendly – that was the message driven home Tuesday evening by four candidates running for two seats on the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners.
The League of Women Voters of La Plata County held the virtual forum, which featured District 2 candidates Marsha Porter-Norton, a Democrat, and Jack Turner, unaffiliated; and District 3 candidates Charly Minkler, unaffiliated, and Matt Salka, a Democrat. The election is Nov. 3.
The candidates seemed all in agreement about the biggest issues that face La Plata County, namely economic growth, affordable housing and quality jobs.
And while all the candidates voiced unanimous support for the newly adopted land-use code, there was a sense that the regulations should be combed over once again to remove any restrictions that could unnecessarily hinder growth.
“We just have obstacle after obstacle,” Turner said. “We need to be conscientious about the value of time.”
Minkler said La Plata County is a great incubator for new businesses, but those companies tend to leave because of high costs and regulations. He said keeping those good paying jobs in the community will help people attain housing.
“We have to bolster and support our businesses in our county,” he said. “The best thing we can do for the residents in our county is to close the wage gap.”
Porter-Norton highlighted that 50% of people in the community can’t afford to buy a home. She said she has developed a countywide plan to address affordable housing, which calls for creative collaboration with partners like the city of Durango, the private sector and even philanthropists.
“La Plata County cannot handle all of these problems on our own,” she said. “We have to do more, and I will lead the charge, if elected.”
Salka said the county needs to be prepared for future growth, with an emphasis on the conditions of roads and bridges, as well as issues surrounding available water in areas with new development.
“We need to make sure we have adequate water in order to provide for the new residents coming into La Plata County,” he said.
Minkler added that it’s going to be important to have wise land-use planning going forward, directing new development to areas where infrastructure exists and density can be acquired, to preserve the county’s agricultural lands.
And Turner said there is nothing in the new land-use code that incentivizes developers to build affordable housing, and there needs to be some process that fast-tracks those projects rather than dragging them out over a long period of time.
“I am so concerned about the idea our workforce is going to have to travel in from great distances because they can’t afford to live here,” he said.
Candidates also praised previous commissioners and county staff members for navigating dramatic budget declines during the past few years as a result of the collapse of the oil and gas industry, which has caused property tax revenues to fall and limit county services.
But candidates called out possible issues ahead.
Turner, for instance, questioned whether La Plata County really needs a legal team of seven people, and proposed the idea of partnerships with entities like the city of Durango to eliminate certain redundancies of service.
“I think we’re a little fat in some places, and we need to be a little more careful,” he said.
When asked about the prospect of raising property taxes, the candidates said they would support it, only if residents supported it.
La Plata County’s mill levy is the fourth lowest in the state and hasn’t been raised since 1991. But previous failed attempts to raise the mill levy in 2015 and 2016 have raised concern among county officials whether they can keep up with maintaining roads.
Salka said the county should look toward other ways to collect the shortfall on road and bridge maintenance until it appears there is widespread support among county residents for a tax increase.
Porter-Norton said that “all tools” need to be on the table to address the upkeep of roads, which she called the county’s biggest asset. She said any effort to possibly raise taxes should first begin with long talks to county residents.
The winner of District 2 will take the seat of Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and the winner of District 3 will take the seat of Commissioner Julie Westendorff, who are both term-limited.