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‘Yes’ and ‘no’ on Ballot Issue 3B

On Nov. 1, Archuleta County voters will be asked to decide if property taxes should be raised to fund a $49 million bond initiative for the purpose building new schools for the Archuleta School District 50 Joint (Ballot Issue 3B). The election is by mail-in ballot only.

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, the Archuleta County Clerk and Recorder’s Office will send out mail-in ballots to active registered voters in the county (see related article). Ballots must be delivered to the county by Nov. 1 but can be hand delivered to the county clerk on that day.

Although the district had long considered the concept of a mega-campus — locating the high school, middle school and elementary school buildings in a single location — the idea took off in December 2011 when the district signed a $300,000 contract on 53 acres of land adjacent to the high school.

For all intents and purposes, the district bought the 53 acres for a song. The parcel, bordering Trujillo Road on the north and west side with the high school campus on the east, had been assessed at $3.4 million in 2007 (when a Planned Unit Development had been proposed for the parcel) before being acquired by Citizens Bank in a foreclosure. Listed at $400,000 by the bank after that acquisition, the district was able to obtain a further 25-percent discount on the property.

With the property in hand and a four-year-old facilities master plan calling for a new buildings to be constructed near the high school, the district board approved bond language in late August to pursue the goal of placing all district students in facilities on approximately 90 acres located on the south side of town.

Certainly, local property taxes would go up should the bond initiative pass in November. However, opinions on both sides of the issue are not merely concerned with a tax hike.

Yesterday, SUN staff talked with opponents and supporters of the issue in order to hear both points of view regarding the bond initiative. Local residents Jim Huffman and Bob Clinkenbeard spoke in opposition while Lori Unger spoke in support.

Clinkenbeard identified himself as “just an ordinary and concerned citizen.” A full-time Archuleta County resident, Clinkenbeard identified himself as “retired, and a registered unaffiliated voter.”

Although Clinkenbeard took issue with dollar amounts provided by the district, he stated that he was not so much opposed to building new schools as much as the district’s process in pursuing the bond initiative.

“I thought it was strange that there was no firm data presented at the beginning,” he said. “What was presented was back filling data to support the issue.”

Identifying herself as a parent with a child in the local schools (and volunteering with the schools as well as donating supplies), a Realtor and small business owner, Unger said there is an immediate need to provide new schools for the district’s students.

“I’m in the schools, I see the deterioration, especially in the elementary school,” Unger said. “If you have water coming in from the ceiling, you probably have mold in the walls. I don’t think that’s a good learning environment for my child.”

The district maintains that the three buildings it intends to replace — the elementary, intermediate and junior high schools — are beyond their intended service life, pointing out low scores the Colorado Department of Education gave the buildings during a 2009 assessment. That report said that the elementary school (built in 1967) ranked 81st from the bottom, with 80 schools in worse condition and 1,606 schools in better condition; the intermediate school (built in 1917) ranked 138th from the bottom, with 137 schools in worse condition and 1,549 in better condition; and, the junior high school (built in 1954, with an addition built in the ’70s) ranked 208th from the bottom, with 207 schools in worse condition and 1,479 in better condition .

According to the district, the full $49 million bond authorization, over a 25-year term, with a 28-percent decreased assessed valuation (AV), the anticipated mill levy is 10 mills (levied against a property’s AV, not market value), raising residential property taxes almost $8 a month (or about $80 a year) per $100,000 of a home’s AV and $290 a year per $100,000 AV of commercial property.

Some opponents question that amount. “I don’t believe the district’s calculation of the mill,” Huffman said. “It’s not 10 mills but more like 14 mills, a 67 percent increase on my taxes.”

Unger, however, felt the 10 mill figure was accurate and believes that her tax burden would not be substantially affected with the passage of the bond issue.

“My taxes will go up $137 (annually), which is still less than what I’m paying with the new assessment. That’s 38 cents a day, additionally. Is it worth it to me? Absolutely,” Unger said.

Huffman also said that his best information indicated another 25-percent drop in property AV for 2012, a situation that would increase the amount of tax burden the bond would place on property owners. According to Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte, 2011 assessments were down 24 percent and the county would be budgeting accordingly.

However, County Assessor Natalie Woodruff stated that the next round of valuations would not be released until 2013, with the valuation period not beginning until after June 2012. When asked if it was too early to predict market values at this time, Woodruff responded, “Correct.”

In contrast, supporters of the bond state that, as property AVs increase, the amount of the mill levy will decrease, as will the tax burden. Nonetheless, Unger (as a Realtor) stated that, “I personally don’t think we’ve seen the low end here (as far as property values),” pointing to the continued glut of foreclosed properties on the market.

Still, it is important to note that, for the moment, Archuleta County remains a bargain as far as property taxes. Relative to mill levy levels throughout the state, Archuleta County ranks just below average — 29th lowest out of 64 counties in Colorado (according to a Department of Local Affairs 2010 report). Colorado ranks 39th in the nation in property taxes as a percentage of median household income and Archuleta County’s 2,694 out of 2,922 counties nationally for taxes paid as a percentage of median home value.

Again, Huffman raised the issue of costs, stating that the district had not pursued BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) funding to offset the tax burden on Archuleta County property owners.

“I really think that’s incorrect,” Unger said. “My work takes me to the San Luis Valley and I was talking to people at the Monte Vista school district. They got $32 million in BEST funding and said they had to wait until the bond issue went through before they could pursue BEST dollars. There’s a protocol that needs to be followed, procedures that are required.”

While Unger stated she believed that a consolidated campus would be good for area students, creating a positive learning environment, Huffman said he felt the district’s rationale for moving the schools for safety reasons (due to their proximity to U.S. 160) is misguided.

“I asked Mark DeVoti if there had ever been a student injured crossing 160 ... his response was that, in recent memory, there was one student that had been injured and it was not related to a school event.”

Huffman added that he felt that diverting traffic down Eighth Street to the site of the proposed consolidated campus would create more of a safety hazard than having students cross the highway.

“I understand there’s more traffic on 160 but there’s more during the summer when school is not in session,” Huffman said, adding that U.S. 160 is state maintained (for snow removal) while Eighth Street falls under the charge of the town.

“I think, potentially in the wintertime, those roads are potentially more dangerous, significantly more hazardous than they are on 160,” he said.

Huffman also said that better-built schools would not attract substantially more residents to the area, citing that most homebuyers are retirees and second-home owners. “Retirees are not moving here for the schools,” Huffman said.

Unger disagreed, again referring to her position as a Realtor. “We need to attract young families to the area and we can’t do that with schools that are falling apart,” she said.

Yet, while the distinctions between Unger and Huffman’s arguments are clear, Clinkenbeard expressed an opinion that adds another level to the debate — the question of timing. Admitting that he did vote to approve a 2002 bond initiative for construction of the high school, Clinkenbeard added, “There needs to be more support for classroom teachers.”

Despite saying that he would not vote to support the bond initiative, Clinkenbeard acknowledged that something needs to be done.

“We need to start over, everything needs to be on the table,” he said. “There needs to be more community input, then come up with a plan that the community buys into.”

“How long are we going to wait?” Unger asked. “When the economy gets better? What if it takes another 10-15 years ... which is realistic. Families are going to leave here,” adding that the effect could snowball, affecting local businesses much more than a rise in property taxes.

“Pagosa Springs could become a ghost town if we don’t start looking towards the future instead of just looking at today,” Unger said, adding, “I hope people vote ‘Yes’ on 3B and support our future, our children.”

jim@pagosasun.com

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