County seeks half-cent sales tax for roads

Few problems bring complaints from county residents faster than bumpy, pot-holed roads or unsafe intersections.

“Probably more than half the calls I get are road-related,” said County Commissioner Dewayne Findley. “Land use and roads are the most pertinent issues I feel I deal with.”

Concern about the condition of the county’s approximately 800 miles of roads prompted the commissioners to place a question on the November ballot asking voters if they would like to approve a 0.55-cent county sales tax to be earmarked for the road department.

Along with the 0.45-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1999 for a new jail, the road tax, if passed, would bring the total county sales tax to 1 cent. Like the jail tax, it would not be levied on groceries.

Neighboring La Plata County has a 2-cent sales tax, Findley noted, “and they have a lot of revenue. They have some really nice roads. That would be my vision for Montezuma County some day, to have roads approaching the quality of those in La Plata County.”

Since the passage of the TABOR Amendment in 1992, Montezuma County has struggled to make its revenues keep pace with the demands of its growing rural population. A decline in revenues from carbon-dioxide production in the 1990s helped lower the TABOR-imposed cap on county spending, and there were cuts to numerous departments, including the road department.

In 2002, the county “de-Bruced,” or obtained voter permission to keep revenues beyond the TABOR cap, but since then there has been little growth in property taxes, Findley said.

“The reason we felt we need to increase our revenues was we are stagnant,” he said. “We haven’t realized much growth.” The revenue increase has been under $200,000, he said, and that will be largely eaten up by pay increases for employees and similar measures.

“ If we’re going to keep up with our roads and the added impacts on the roads, we’re going to have to have more funds and that’s why we put the issue on the ballot,” Findley said.

Putting the question to the voters is in the spirit of TABOR, he said, and lets residents decide what level of services they want.

Many voters have asked him how the new funds will be prioritized if the measure passes, Findley said. “That’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question,” he said. “Do we need to decide before or afterwards?” He said the four district foremen in the road department, the commissioners, the sheriff’s department, and the public all will give input about which roads and intersections should receive attention.

Two of the county’s most dangerous intersections are on state highways, Findley said — at Highway 491 and CR M, and at CR P and Highway 145. Getting those improved will require the cooperation of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

But county intersections such as the one at CR G and 41 near Mancos and roads such as CR 42 to Jackson Lake and CR L near Cortez could be helped by the additional revenues the ballot measure would bring.

“We have some chip-sealed roads that are showing their age,” Findley said. “Other than a 10-year rotation, it’s hard for the county to come up with revenues to address those.”

He said the sales tax allows tourists to help pay the cost of road improvement and maintenance. Findley said he believes landowners are paying enough in property taxes. “An ad valorem tax I would not have supported,” he said. “People are about paying all they can afford.”

From Election, October 2004.