Things tend to be rather quiet on the east side of La Plata County, and most of us like it that way, but there were some 2016 news items with considerable impact in Ignacio, Bayfield, and rural areas.
Embezzlement In January 2016, town hall staffer Jackie Mejia told police she had been taking money from the town's daily bank deposits to cover a gambling addiction.
The thefts went back to early 2015. An insurance company forensic audit listed the loss at $66,000. The town's insurance covered most of the loss. Mejia pleaded guilty. She was sentenced in September to five years of probation with a chance to have the felony conviction removed from her record if she successfully completes the probation.
She was ordered to pay more than $66,000 in restitution, participate in addiction counseling, and complete 48 hours of community service, according to the Durango Herald. She has moved to Montrose and has a job with no access to money at the business. The town has tightened its procedures for handling and depositing bill payments.
Tribal sales tax exclusion In May the Southern Ute Indian Tribe notified Ignacio businesses that the tribe and tribal members should be exempt from paying sales tax in town, based on a state law passed in 2014 and a federal law passed in 1984. Town officials argued the state law was intended to apply to major purchases such as vehicles, not all purchases in town; but the Colorado Department of Revenue interpreted it to apply to all purchases. The town also argued that the federal law mainly was intended to clarify that the state has criminal and civil legal jurisdiction in Ignacio. Interim Town Manager Mark Garcia said in December that the actual financial impact on the town is still not known. In November, Town Treasurer Diana Briar said Farmers Fresh Market tracked the exemption amounts, and they averaged $280 per month; but the new Family Dollar did not. Tribal members have to request the exemption. Sales tax is the town's largest revenue source.
Utility rate increasesAnnual water and sewer rate increases charged to the town by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe have been an ongoing issue. Town trustees opted not to pass on the October 2015 rate increases to town customers. But in November 2016, trustees approved rate increases to cover the 2015 increase as well as the tribe's October 2016 increases. Sewer customers are now paying $72.99 a month. Town officials have been pressing the tribal utility department to document that the rate charged to the town is proportional to the town's load on the tribe's sewage treatment plant.
Family Dollar store opensThe Family Dollar store opened in spring 2016 at the south end of town, providing a new source of sales tax revenue and a place for locals to buy clothing and miscellaneous household items. The Farmers Fresh Market celebrated its first anniversary in operation with a brisket cookoff.
Marijuana businessesIn October the town board opted to continue its ban on any medical or recreational marijuana businesses in town despite the prospects of revenue from such businesses. The revenue just wasn't worth it, some trustees said.
School district celebratesIgnacio school officials celebrated in early October as the Colorado Department of Education released the district from state oversight for the first time since 2010. Districts are rated for student scores on state mandated tests and for year-to-year academic growth. Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said a majority of Ignacio students showed full year growth in tests given in spring 2016. "Academically we grew in every category, every group of kids," he said. The elementary school was released from "turnaround" status, and the mid school got a "performance school" rating, the second highest available.
Assessed valuation declinesIn December the school board raised the property tax rate for repayment of school construction bonds to make up for a 40-percent decline in assessed valuation related to natural gas production.
Los Pinos chief retiresLongtime Los Pinos Fire Chief Larry Behrens retired in spring 2016 and was replaced by Deputy Chief Tom Aurnhammer.
New school comingBayfield School District voters narrowly approved a $28.7 million bond issue on Nov. 8 to build a new school for grades 3-5 and do major renovations and additions at the elementary school for grades K-2. A successful bond sale closed on Dec. 15. Plans for the schools are being refined, and construction should start in the spring on the new 3-5 school across the street from the mid school. Work at the elementary school will start in the summer. The total project is budgeted at $37.2 million, with a state BEST grant paying for $8.6 million of that.
Water plant expansionIn October the Town of Bayfield and La Plata/ Archuleta Water District completed a joint project to expand the capacity of the town's water treatment plant by 1 million gallons per day. LAPLAWD paid for the expansion and will get 75 percent of the additional capacity to serve rural water customers.
Bayfield real estateThe town saw a fair amount of home construction in 2016, but the town is running out of buildable residential lots. No new ones were in the pipeline as the year ended. Median home prices in Bayfield increased in 2016 according to the Durango Area Association of Realtors. The median was $293,500 for the third quarter of 2016 versus $275,000 in the third quarter of 2015 and $245,000 in 2014. The median price for Bayfield area rural homes increased from $265,000 to $302,500 from the third quarter of 2015 to 2016. But the median prices were still far below those in Durango.
Where stars shine brightIn June, town trustees approved a new branding slogan of "Bayfield - where the stars shine bright," and a scenic logo to go with it. T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other items with the slogan and logo are available for purchase at town hall. As part of the branding effort and to promote community spirit, the town and Pine River Library organized three summer evenings on Mill Street, with a beer garden, live bands, and vendor booths. All three events drew good crowds despite sometimes looming dark clouds.
In October, Bayfield town board trustees also decided to continue banning marijuana businesses in town limits or in the three mile area around town.
Colorado Gun Fighter opensColorado Gun Fighter, a gun shop and training center at Pine River Lodge in Vallecito, held its grand opening in July.
Another anniversary passes in Redwine murderThe fourth anniversary of 13-year-old Dylan Redwine's disappearance and death passed in November without any resolution. Bayfield resident Denise Hess, who worked doggedly to find him and then to get justice for him, died of cancer on Oct. 2.
Rural La Plata County
On Nov. 8 voters rejected property tax increases for county road maintenance and a new airport terminal. The Durango Herald reported that the road and bridge increase lost in rural precincts while city of Durango voters supported it. The airport issue lost county-wide. The county had an 84 percent voter turnout among active voters.
Assessed valuations fallCounty assessed valuations continued their multi-year fall because of declining natural gas production and prices. Property tax revenue in 2016 was $18.9 million versus $29.4 million in 2010. The figures were cited in the campaign for a road and bridge property tax increase. Countywide valuations fell an average 18 percent, Assessor Craig Larson reported in the fall. Tax districts with a lot of oil and gas and relatively little new construction took much bigger hits, he said.
County comp plan County planning staff and planning commissioners continued chapter by chapter updates of the 2001 comprehensive plan. It's been a quiet affair with little public participation compared to the heated meetings in 2011 over a previous attempt to re-do the comp plan. The current work is on public safety, to be followed by historic preservation and then recreation/ tourism. Work is expected to wrap up in April, then planning commissioners will review district area plans, most of which date from the late 1990s. The comp plan is an advisory document.
New land use codeIn October the county commissioners hired a Texas consulting firm to create a new county land use code. The first commissioner and stakeholder meetings with the consultants were in early November. They'll be back for more meetings on Jan. 25 and 26. One goal is to make the code easier to understand, and less frustrating, time consuming, and expensive for applicants. One question is who pays for infrastructure needed for development. The consultants promised to keep people in the loop so there aren't angry protests when a final product is presented, as happened with the 2011 comp plan.
Fairgrounds yet againIn early December the county advertised for proposals to draft a plan for a future multi-event center on Ewing Mesa off Highway 3 in Durango. Proposals are due on Jan. 16. The land, which has a spectacular view of the La Platas, was bought several years ago by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Marc Katz with intent that it would be for public use. This is the first step of something that could take years, Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina told the Times.
Rural crimeAllison area residents complained of thefts and other crimes in the southeast corner of the county, and slow response times by law enforcement, according to a Durango Herald report in May. The concerns also affected people who live south of the state line in the Navajo reservoir area but access their properties from Colorado. La Plata and Archuleta County officials held a community meeting with around 70 residents. Representatives from the San Juan County NM Sheriff's Office, Southern Ute Police and Tribal Council also attended. Law enforcement agreed to increase patrols, according to the Herald report, and residents were urged to report any criminal activity, even if minor, as a way to document the need for more patrols.
Times editor Melanie Mazur contributed to this report.