Costs of maintaining and improving county roads and bridges are going up, but county revenues are going down, the La Plata County Commissioners told Bayfield town trustees on Aug. 2.
They were seeking a town resolution of support for a road and bridge property tax increase that will be on the ballot this November.
"The average home is paying about $20 a year for road maintenance," Commissioner Brad Blake said. "I pay a kid more to mow my lawn."
He told town trustees, "I've been a commissioner for about one year and seven months. One of the first things I was made aware of was the problems with the county roads. Our property taxes have taken a huge hit because of oil and gas," low natural gas prices and falling production. Other revenue sources such as the Highway Users Tax Fund and state severance tax also have fallen, he said.
Severance taxes are paid by oil and gas production. "It's something we rely on and should be relying on," Blake said. "It should come back to the county. This year because of some litigation, those funds are frozen. We aren't getting any."
He continued, "Road costs haven't gone down. Nothing ever gets cheaper. County population and demands on the roads have increased. The roads were built for farm-to-market traffic, but the use has increased many-fold." The county had 19,000 residents in 1970. In 2015, it had 54,688 residents. It's projected to be heading toward 62,000 in 2020, he said.
County bridges also are aging. "There are a few still built out of wood," he said.
The Road & Bridge Fund has a dedicated property tax, 0.71 mills, which is budgeted to bring in $1.6 million this year; but the county is subsidizing the department with $2.77 million of county sales tax this year as well, Blake said.
Both Road & Bridge and general county operations have been hit with big drops in property tax revenue from coalbed methane development. It's fallen 60 percent since 2010, when total property tax revenue was $29.9 million, with around $18 million of that from oil and gas; down to a total $16.9 million in 2015, with $7 million to $8 million from oil and gas. It's projected that in 2017, residential property taxes will bring in more revenue (around $6 million) than oil and gas ($5-plus million), Blake said. "We've never seen that."
The county will seek voter approval of a 2.4 mill property tax increase for Road & Bridge. It would bring in around $3.4 million in 2017. It would add around $76 per year to taxes on a $400,000 residential property. The same ballot request lost by just under 500 votes last year.
"We're asking again because the problem didn't go away," Blake said. "It got worse." The tax increase will sunset after 10 years.
The 2.4 mill request is scaled back from what's really needed, he added. He cited a study that over the next 10 years, $60 million will be needed for road and bridge projects.
"That was scaled back to $33.8 million. We can only ask so much," he said.
"People say you have to cut back. This is cutting back. (Road and bridge staff) have been maintaining the roads with a flat budget. That can't continue."
The county's total mill levy is 8.5 for general operations, law enforcement, road and bridge, and human services. It hasn't been raised since 1992 and is the fourth lowest county mill levy in the state, Blake said. The median tax rate for small- and medium-size counties is 20.21 mills, he said.
County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said, "If we don't do some heavy duty maintenance in the near future, we'll be forced to turn some paved roads back to gravel or do re-construction which is much more expensive" than maintenance.
Maintaining dirt roads is actually more expensive than maintaining paved roads, she said.
Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said, "We have to look at other ways to fund critical services."
The commissioners had hand-out cards listing Bayfield and Ignacio area projects on the road to-do list:
County Road 501 - 3 miles of asphalt overlay north from Bayfield, $1.2 million; and new bridge deck over Vallecito Creek, $200,000.CR 502 - 3.2 miles of asphalt overlay and culvert replacement from Highway 160 to the CR 505 turnoff, $1.3 million. CR 509 - 3/10 mile of reconstruction from Dry Creek to the CR 510 turnoff, $350,000; and intersection realignment at Bayfield Parkway, $100,000.CR 510 - 6.7 miles of reconstruction from where the pavement ends east to CR 509, $4 million.CR 517 - 8/10 mile of urban improvements funded by state and federal grants.CR 309 - realign intersection with Highway 172, $250,000.CR 311 - reconstruct 2.5 miles from CR 314 to Hwy. 172, $1 million; and 1 mile of surface improvement from CR 310 to CR 318, $400,000.CR 314 - bridge reconstruction at Rock Creek, $100,000.CR 321 - bridge reconstruction at Tiffany Draw, $400,000.CR 334 - bridge reconstruction at Allison Ditch, $400,000.Bayfield trustee Rachel Davenport commented, "There's a lot more residential traffic now. Is there anything from developers when they split up those big ag properties and there are 30 cars instead of one?"
Westendorff said no. There's been a recommendation to look at impact fees on development, she said.
Blake added, "It's a very difficult conversation. You can say, 'What about impact fees?' In all these conversations, it's preceded by, 'We want affordable housing.' I think we need to have the conversation. Those people do impact the roads."
The commissioners are scheduled to make their presentation to the Ignacio Town Board next Wednesday.