OURAY COUNTY – A quartet of county elected officials presented a formal plan to the Board of County Commissioners this week to increase county revenues by about half a million dollars annually, through a proposed 1 percent boost to the county sales tax.
The new tax would offset a steep decline in revenues which the county has suffered in recent years stemming from the Great Recession and the accompanying downward trend in assessed property values.
The county needs to either create a new revenue source, or begin significantly scaling back on the services it offers, said Ouray County Clerk Michelle Nauer, Assessor Susie Mayfield, Treasurer Jeanne Casolari and Sheriff Dominic “Junior” Mattivi at Tuesday’s BOCC meeting.
They presented a carefully laid-out argument for why the proposed sales tax is the best option for raising new revenues, and also presented options for how to scale back on county services if the proposal fails. Among the options: shifting to a four-day workweek for most county employees and closing the courthouse on Fridays.
Voters would be asked to approve the proposed tax in this November’s election. Funds raised would be earmarked to create a new “Public Health and Safety Fund,” which could be used to cover expenses from general fund budget line items including the public health nurse, emergency manager/coordinator, coroner, dispatch, search and rescue, fire, telecommunications, animal control and more.
“This funding mechanism is not to ‘grow government,’” the county officials stressed in their proposal. “We are not utilizing these funds for new projects or for hiring more employees. It is to maintain our current level of service, retain (and appreciate) our current employees, keep up with the demands of growth and unfunded mandates, and address needed improvements to our current facilities.”
The problem with Ouray County’s inadequate revenues goes back further than the Great Recession. As Nauer pointed out, Ouray County is at the bottom of counties in the region, in terms of the combined revenues it brings in through its current 2 percent sales tax and comparatively skimpy mill levies.
“We are really low on the mill levy and average in sales tax,” she said.
Even so, Commissioner Mike Fedel said he was having a “hard time with the concept” of asking Ouray County residents and visitors to pay more taxes. He and Commissioner Don Batchelder both liked the idea of attaching a sunset clause in the tax proposal, to boost public buy-in. Nauer, Mayfield and Casolari argued against that idea, stating that in light of a projected 30 percent reduction in county revenues due to declining property values, a permanent new source of funds is necessary to maintain the county’s fiscal well-being.
“All of us are not seeing property values coming back real soon,” Nauer said. “Ouray County is in a unique situation, with so many second homes. The people who own them can afford to take that loss if they need to get out from underneath it. This has been detrimental to property values in the county.”
Commissioner Lynn Padgett was in favor of going forward with the proposal as presented. “We have tried really hard to provide quality services on a shoestring on the backs of our employees for too long,” she said. “I want to see the county have a strong organization that is resilient, and can take care of its public assets in the long term. Planning for the long-term future is the responsible thing to do.”
Fedel acknowledged a “philosophical difference” between himself and Padgett, in regard to the concept of boosting taxes to maintain services, and generally decried the growth of unfunded federal and state mandates burdening the county.
Batchelder, meanwhile, sought to move the discussion forward, thanking the other elected officials for bringing the matter to the commissioners’ attention. “We are at the end of the road; the only way to avoid a decrease of services is an increase in revenues,” he said. “I think it is a reasonable proposal and it should go to the voters.”
In the end, the board gave Nauer and her colleagues the green light to move forward with drafting a ballot proposal. Batchelder requested that the draft ballot language be prepared at least one month prior to the Sept. 7 deadline, to leave adequate time for “robust discussions” before the ballot question is finalized.
GRAND PLANS FOR GRANDSTANDS
The Ouray Board of County Commissioners and community stakeholders agreed to a course of action regarding the beleaguered grandstands at the Ouray County fairgrounds at a lengthy work session on Monday night, July 8. “It was a very comprehensive discussion,” said Commissioner Mike Fedel.
The ultimate decision was to go forward with the so-called “Plan A” – seeking grant funding from three sources to fund construction of new grandstands. Representatives from the Ouray County Rodeo Association indicated they were fully in support of this direction, said Commissioner Lynn Padgett. The county will pursue grants from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) for $350,000; the Gates Family Foundation for up to $100,000; and El Pomar Foundation for $50,000; and will need to come up with about $75,000 in cash and in-kind matches to make the project happen.
The Town of Ridgway, Ranch History Museum and Top of the Pines have all agreed to sit out this GOCO round, Padgett said, as a means of emphasizing unified community support behind the plan.
If the county is not successful in obtaining these grants, it will move forward with “Plan B” – engineering and designing a remodel of the existing grandstands.
In the meantime, the grandstands will be modified for use at the upcoming Ouray County Labor Day Rodeo, by sawing off the last two rows (which are unsafe) and putting up safety barricades. “The rodeo will go on,” Fedel said. The remedial, temporary measure will cost the county about $2,000, Fedel said.
SAGE GROUSE RESOLUTION
After conducting a lengthy discussion by speaker phone with Gunnison County Attorney Dave Baumgartner, the Ouray Board of County Commissioners agreed on Tuesday to sign a resolution authorizing Chair Mike Fedel to sign a Conservation Agreement regarding the Gunnison Sage Grouse. Per the resolution, the Chair’s signature is “subject to repudiation and withdrawal in the event that the Gunnison Sage Grouse is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species, and lands in Ouray County are designated by regulation as critical habitat, making collaborative efforts less appropriate.”
Ouray County is one of 11 counties in the region which have pledged to be signatories on the Conservation Agreement, which spells out ways that local communities can protect the bird’s habitat without succumbing to an unwieldy federal listing and the accompanying designation of critical habitat.
The document will be presented to U.S. Forest Service Director Dan Ashe at a meeting in Gunnison on Tuesday, July 16. The agency is set to make a final determination whether the Gunnison Sage Grouse should be listed as threatened or endangered by September 2013, but Baumgartner said he expects that deadline may be extended.
Gunnison County has taken the lead in objecting to the proposed listing of the Gunnison Sage Grouse as an endangered or threatened species, arguing that the numbers of birds in the Gunnison Basin have actually increased by about a third in recent years, largely thanks to locally implemented protection measures.
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