No new tax for La Plata County

Roads and bridges come up short; sewer bond a go

by Tracy Chamberlin


Voters supported most of the measures on Tuesday’s ballot with one exception – La Plata County’s road and bridge tax. The difference was just 491 votes.

“I had hoped it would pass,” La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.

The unofficial results show a split of 48 percent voting for the tax increase, and 52 percent voting against. With only 12,641 ballots returned, less than one third of La Plata’s registered voters spoke out on the issues.

County officials hired pollsters earlier in the year to judge residents’ appetite for an increase in the mill levy, or property tax, paid annually. Results suggested there was support for the measure, which would have earmarked the additional tax revenues for the maintenance and upkeep of county roads and bridges.

“The polling did not jive with the actual results,” Westendorff said.

With natural gas prices hitting all-time lows and a recovery unlikely, the county’s budget has taken a hit. The overall budget for La Plata County has fallen 48 percent since 2010 causing backlogs in county projects, like the maintenance and repair of La Plata’s roads and bridges. “The picture will not get better,” Westendorff said.

It’s too early to say whether or not the county will come back to the voters next November, she added, but the failure of the measure does compromise the county’s ability to keep up with road maintenance.

Regardless of whether the measure passed or not, Westendorff said impact fees for the heaviest road users were already on the table. Investigations began last week.  But impact fees won’t cover the cost of maintenance. Westendorff said, for now, the county will just continue to do the best it can.

The city could have expected about $600,000 in additional revenues for its road and bridge needs form the measure. Although City Councilor Dick White said he was sympathetic and disappointed the measure failed, things were different when it came to the city’s sewer bond measure.

“I’m enormously relieved that the sewer bond issue passed,” White said. “It’s such an important project to get going on.”

The city asked voters to authorize a debt of $68 million to either pay for improvements to the current Wastewater Treatment Plant or build a new one. Just ahead of the vote, the Durango City Council decided to keep the plant in its current location at Santa Rita Park.

Although the measure was about taking out a loan to make necessary improvements to the plant, some residents in opposition of the measure wanted it to be a referendum on the plant’s location.

“In hindsight, I think we could have done a better job of communicating with the public on the process we were going through,” White said.

In the end, 68 percent of Durango voters approved the bond measure while 32 percent voted against it.

The one state ballot measure was Proposition BB, which asked voters if the state could keep excess taxes taken in over the past year for recreational marijuana. The proposition passed overwhelmingly with 69 percent approval statewide and 71 percent in La Plata County.

In the race for seats on the Durango School District 9-R Board of Education, Matthew Sheldon beat out Brie Stahnke in District D. Sheldon took 57 percent of the vote, while Stahnke had 43 percent. Stephanie Moran, who was running unopposed for District B, had more than 6,000 votes.

Along with tax questions, bond measures and seats on the school board, voters were asked about allowing the city and county to provide internet and cable services. As Question 1B in the county and 2C in the city, more than 80 percent of voters approved the measures in all districts.

According to La Plata Election Administrator Erin Hutchins, the election results are still unofficial and won’t be certified for a few weeks.

The voter turnout for the area was even less than in other odd years, which tend to be smaller than even years when congressional, senate or presidential races fall.

The last odd year election was 2013, which saw a 37 percent voter turnout in the county. This year it was just 31 percent.

In 2013, the ballot issues included the proposed plastic bag ban in Durango, the merging of the Durango Fire Protection District and the retail marijuana tax question.