Last week’s League of Women Voters public forum afforded concerned voters another chance to look into issues that will appear on this November’s ballot, including an Archuleta County request to assess 7 mills for the next four years, with the revenue to be dedicated to county roads (Ballot Issue 1A).
This year, the November election will be conducted as a mail ballot, with ballots mailed out Tuesday, Oct. 11.
The county’s certified ballot language proposes to spend the approximately $2.26 million collected annually from the 7 mills (based on 2012 property value estimates) in accordance with the five-year road plan being created by consulting firm Short Elliott Hendrickson, Inc. (SEH).
In order to retain the revenue, the ballot question includes a “de-Brucing” figure to allow the county to collect the revenue that exceeds TABOR limits.
Although expected by the Board of County Commissioners and community, a preliminary plan from SEH was not released prior to the mailing of the ballots, leaving voters in the dark as to what the plan to control the funding might look like (see related story in this issue).
According to SEH’s preliminary figures released over the summer, however, more than $7.65 million would be required on an annual basis to accomplish needed improvement and maintenance on county roads. Routine maintenance such as grading, snow plowing and weed cutting are not included in the estimate.
Also included in the ballot language is a statement that 50 percent of the proceeds collected from the town and any metro or improvement districts will be paid back to each entity for use on roads within that district.
The remaining funding would, then, “FUND ROAD CONSTRUCTION AND MAINTENANCE PROJECTS IN THE ARCHULETA COUNTY ADOPTED 5 YEAR ROAD IMPROVEMENT PLAN.”
If approved by the voters, the county would have one additional year beyond the four years in the question to spend the money (to account for any ongoing or delayed projects), or the money would be refunded to the taxpayers through a credit on the 2017 mill levy.
At the Thursday forum, Johnny Pickett spoke in favor of the ballot measure (commissioners are not allowed, by law, to campaign in an official capacity) and John Bozek spoke against the issue.
Following the forum, Pickett came out against the ballot issue at a BoCC meeting (see related story).
At the forum, Pickett said that, after soul-searching, she decided to vote in favor of the measure.
“I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen to the roads if it doesn’t happen,” Pickett said, adding she knows it is a “stopgap measure. It’s a hole that, if you let it get deeper, you’re just asking for future heartache.”
Continuing her opening statement, Pickett said driver comfort and safety is dependent on the quality of road, while poor roads increase the need for vehicle maintenance and respiratory health concerns, and the image of the community to visitors is affected by the quality of roads.
Pickett said the difference between road funding without the new 1A passing and with its passage would be $7.2 million over the four years.
In his opening statements, Bozek pointed out the BoCC’s verbal promise to discontinue maintenance on secondary roads after the four-year span of the measure and continued to make a series of points, the first being that taxpayers cannot be sure county staff will prioritize spending the funding as they say they will, using the current 1A measure as an example (charging that the county budgeted $3 million for roads before 1A and still does, even with 1A).
Bozek’s second point was that the ballot language included no “traditional limits” and, instead, includes a “hidden increase clause.”
A later call to County Attorney Todd Starr was met with a response that, in fact, the mill levy could not be increased over the course of its assessment without a vote of the people under the associated de-Brucing measure.
“The purpose of the de-Brucing for the seven mills is so we can utilize the full amount,” County Administrator Greg Schulte said during a phone call, adding that for the escalation to reach the levels indicated by Bozek at the forum and in his Letter to the Editor this week, would require an increase in property valuations equal to the recent, dramatic downturn.
Schulte said voters need to ask themselves about the likelihood of property valuations increasing in such a manner over the four-year span of the ballot measure.
Bozek’s third point alluded to the financial health of taxpayers, but Bozek reached his time limit in the midst of the point.
In a later question, Bozek was asked to continue to state his points.
Bozek’s fourth point was that the county seems to want to spend more on gravel roads than is necessary, and that the county spends four times what the Aspen Springs Metro District spends per mile.
Bozek’s fifth point dealt with the financial health of area businesses, stating his worry that businesses would start to fail or move away from Archuleta County due to a tax increase.
Bozek’s sixth and final point was that residents living within metro districts will pay higher taxes, even if they are happy with their roads.
Pickett responded that it was unfortunate that businesses pay higher taxes per state requirement, but added that businesses would also be helped by good roads, again noting that the ballot question is only a stopgap measure.
Following the opening statements, the floor was open for audience questions.
The first question came from Ronnie Zaday, who questioned the fact that previous status updates with SEH consultants said 50 miles of roads were not included in the LTAP report used in compiling the in-progress road plan, asking what roads would not be taken care of in the plan and if there would, in fact, be a plan.
Pickett responded that she was unsure of the roads not included and did not even know until that morning that the road plan would not be ready before the election (the reason she later came out against the ballot initiative).
During the Oct. 5 update meeting with SEH’s John Simmer, Simmer said the missing roads were identified and included in the plan, though a condition index does not exist for those roads.
Pickett said that mistakes by past boards should not prevent the county from doing the right thing in the future, and that a mill increase, as well as the county’s new accounting approach in which all road and bridge funding is contained in a single fund, would be easier to keep track of.
Pickett noted that the mill increase would not equate to an increase in out-of-pocket costs because of the decline in property values for 2012.
Bozek disagreed, however, further arguing financial health of taxpayers and asking how taxpayers could afford to pay the increase and not have anything happen to the roads.
“I look at how they’ve spent money in the past. I’m scared,” Bozek said.
Audience member Diane Killen asked Bozek for a suggestion on how to fix the roads, to which Bozek responded that it was possible without increasing Road and Bridge revenue, but through a series of steps that include adjusting where revenue from the current mill levy goes, certifying the road plan through a public process that includes expert testimony, and pass a 2-3 mill levy increase to match 2006’s 1A, and convince subdivisions to form metro districts.
Pickett said that, while a long-term solution should be considered, the ballot question concerns the interim.
Resident Bob Clinkenbeard asked the spokespeople to comment on the resignation of the Road Advisory Task Force (the group that recommended a five-year road plan).
Bozek said he felt citizen input and transparency were needed, as well as a group to watch over the functions of government.
Pickett indicated that the method of mass resignation of the RATF may make county officials more careful about citizen panels, but added that what she has seen of the plan in progress indicates transparency.
“It’s also a disaster that that’s (the plan) not ready in time for the election,” Pickett added.
An unidentified husband and wife duo indicated that a firm plan was needed, asking how many plans have been presented and shelved in the last two decades.
Pickett said she thinks continuity of public officials would be beneficial in a number of arenas, noting the idea that it is difficult to remember the last commissioner reelected to a second term.
Pickett added that she met with county officials and asked to see what plan existed (and received a PowerPoint from the consultant), saying she felt the plan was detailed and based on objective criteria, but that visible work was done under the previous 1A to bolster the standpoint.
“I really do think they’ve made an effort to do something with that money that’s visible to the rest of us,” Pickett said.
Bozek noted that the roads that were improved were partially funded by 1A, but were mostly funded through Road Capital Improvement and Highway Users Tax Funding.
Next, Zaday was back with another question involving the 50-percent payback to metro and special improvement districts
Zaday pointed out that, in fact, “public improvement districts” are not explicitly listed in the districts and municipalities eligible for the 50-percent revenue return, though metro districts and special improvement districts are. Zaday added that public improvement districts are one of the more viable districting options for residents of neighborhoods and defined areas to tax themselves and take care of that area’s roads.
A phone call to Starr clarified that, legally, public improvement districts are a type of special improvement district and would be subject to the 50-percent return on tax revenues.
Closed to questions from the floor, Bozek and Pickett were afforded the opportunity for closing arguments.
Bozek began by reminding voters to vote “no” on ballot question 1A and summarizing his previous points.
“I agree with Johnny that Road and Bridge does need money, but we must realize that we, the taxpayers, need more money, too,” Bozek said, adding that he felt de-Brucing opened the door for a “tremendous increase.”
In her closing statement, Pickett reiterated that she felt the de-Brucing concerns Bozek voiced were “not much of an issue” because of the four-year life of the ballot measure. Pickett also reiterated her calculation that the difference between passing and rejecting the ballot measure would be $7.2 million — money that can prevent the roads from being in a worse condition than they currently are.