By Mark Esper
County officials are warning that passage of Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 on the November ballot would be devastating to San Juan County, and to the town government and school district.
Proposition 101 reduces the state income tax by roughly one quarter and eliminates most vehicle and telecommunications fees.
Amendment 60 changes many aspects of property taxes in Colorado, most notably the measure overturns two decades of voter-approved property tax changes and halves school district property-tax rates.
Amendment 60 also imposes procedural changes to the system of voting on property taxes. It allows electors to vote on property taxes where they own property, even if they are not actual residents.
Amendment 61 prohibits state debt and seriously curtails local governments from taking on debt, and severs the related payment streams by lowering taxes.
An analysis of the impact of Proposition 101 by the Bell Policy Center in Denver showed that San Juan County received more than $37,000 from vehicle ownership taxes in 2009, but that would be rolled back to just $788 next year if Proposition 101 is approved.
Meanwhile, the county collected $59,417 in vehicle license fees in 2009, but would bring in only $13,920 if Proposition 101 takes affect.
The proposition rolls back vehicle license fees to their 1919 levels, but it deprives funding for highways, school districts, fire districts, and local municipalities.
The average vehicle license fee in San Juan County in 2009 was $51.22, but under the Proposition 101 it would drop to just $10.
“It sounds so appealing, to take vehicle registration fees down to the 1919 level,” said County Administrator Willy Tookey. But he said that with resulting cuts in government services and infrastructure “Colorado will become very unattractive for businesses and for residential movement.”
County officials worry that voters might see the vehicle registration fee cuts as a good thing for their pocketbook, without thinking through what it means to funding for road maintenance — including snow plowing — and for schools, municipalities and fire districts.
The Bell Policy Center analysis noted that funding for the Silverton school district from the vehicle fees would plummet from the $17,284 it received in 2009 to just $362 under Proposition 101.
And Town of Silverton would receive just $195, compared to the $9,307 it received in 2009.
County officials said funding for Colorado Department of Transportation projects and operations would also face deep cuts and they worried snow plowing operations on Silverton’s lifeline, U.S. 550, would be rolled back.
County Commissioner Pete McKay said plowing crews might have a hard time keeping up if they start skipping hours and abandon night plowing on the highway. He said the results would be “scary.”
“It’d be even worse than scary,” said County Board Chairman Ernie Kuhlman, who plows snow on the highway for CDOT.
Kuhlman said the county commissioners intend to plan next year’s budget based on the hope that Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 won’t pass.
But if the far-reaching tax limitation measures are approved by voters, it’s back to the drawing board.
“If Proposition 101 passes we won’t have the money to do the things we have in the past,” Kuhlman said. “It will mean drastic cuts in services for the people of San Juan County and Colorado and it’s scary.
“We want the public to be as knowledgeable about this as possible,” Kuhlman said. “It’s going to be in their hands — and then it’s going to be in our hands if they pass it. I hope people think deeply about this.”
“This would be devastating,” McKay agreed.
Kuhlman said the proposition and two constitutional amendments would be “the worst thing that could happen to San Juan County since the mine closures.”
Tookey said that Amendment 60, which allows nonresident property owners to vote on bond measures and property tax issues, would also have far-reaching effects here.
He said the county has some 3,000 mining claims, many with summer homes.
“We could be controlled by people who don’t live here and don’t have an interest here other than owning a piece of property,” Tookey said.
And Tookey said with San Juan County government already being so tiny, it’s ability to absorb significant budget cuts is limited.
“It’s hard to cut positions when you already only have one or one and a half people in an office,” Tookey said.
“The majority of our budget is personnel. We’d be cutting positions,” Tookey said.
McKay noted that San Juan County and three other small rural counties in southwest Colorado — Hinsdale, Ouray and San Miguel — are in the process of approving a 4-county resolution opposing the tax limitation measures.
“It’s small-county rural Colorado standing up and saying ‘no,’” McKay said.
“We want to encourage our county population not to support this because it’s going to affect them,” Kuhlman said.