State of the County

THE STATE OF LA PLATA COUNTY

January 26, 2016

La Plata County Board of County Commissioners
Brad Blake, Chair
Julie Westendorff, Vice Chair
Gwen Lachelt, Commissioner

La Plata County is beginning 2016 with many changes, most notably in office locations.  Over the past two years, the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) has been working with its staff to develop a comprehensive facilities strategy based on the needs identified in the 2012 Facility Master Plan. Driven by the opportunity to house the Federal U.S. District Court and Probation offices here in Durango and the need to expand space for Sixth Judicial District Court functions, the County moved offices into the new County Administration Building (CAB), located at 1101 E 2nd Avenue, in June of 2015. This renovated facility provides for a new, more accommodating Board public meeting room, offices for the Commissioners and Administration, a consolidation of the Finance Department in one location, space for the Assessor’s Office, a much needed training room, and continuity of operations location for essential County functions during an emergency.

As part of the facility planning process, many options to address organizational space needs were considered, and acquisition of existing facilities was determined by the Board to be more cost effective than new construction. Consequently, the Board authorized the purchase of the facilities located at 211 Rock Point Drive and 10 Burnett Court in the Durango Tech Center. In December 2015, the Building, Planning, Code Enforcement, Emergency Management and Weed Departments moved into 211 Rock Point Drive.  This move consolidates community development services in one convenient and highly functional location that allows for better access and easier parking for customers.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) relocated to 10 Burnett Court at the Tech Center in January 2016. This relocation addresses long-standing facility and programmatic needs of the DHS, and the building is ideally suited for their purposes now and into the future. DHS clients will benefit from consolidation of services in one location, convenient access and ample parking. Additionally, the move of these departments has helped to alleviate parking congestion in the downtown Durango area and for residents on 3rd and 4th Avenues near the Courthouse.

The County’s ability to address these facility needs was made possible by its wise stewardship of financial resources over time. The practice of utilizing property taxes related to gas production over the year 2000 baseline allowed for funds to be set aside exclusively for such  capital projects. At the end of 2014, the County had reserved approximately $26 million to address facility and other capital needs. In 2015, these funds were used for the acquisition and remodel of the CAB and the acquisition of 211 Rock Point Drive. In 2016, they will be used for the acquisition of 10 Burnett Court and the Courthouse remodel.

The upcoming Courthouse remodel will assist La Plata County in addressing its statutorily mandated responsibilities to the Sixth Judicial District and will also provide courtroom and  office space for the U.S. District Court, U.S. Probation and U.S. Marshal’s Office. La Plata negotiated a 10-year lease agreement with the federal courts to pay for tenant improvements and rent for $236,700 per year. This relocation of federal court functions downtown will promote economic vitality and increase access to justice for victims, witnesses and all those involved in federal proceedings. It will also assist the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes which of use Federal Court proceedings to adjudicate a variety of tribal matters.

One of the Board’s organizational priorities is to enhance services and improve efficiency through technology. Soon, a new County website will be launched with more opportunities for engagement and better access to our services. To help streamline the process for Building and Planning projects, the County created a public portal, Community Development Services Online, which allows citizens to complete many tasks quickly and conveniently from their mobile device or computer.

Updating the 2001 Comprehensive Plan has been a major goal of the BoCC, and considerable progress was made on this effort in 2015. Under the leadership of the Planning Commission, public meetings have been held on the first Thursday of each month to review changes and progress on the Comprehensive Plan update, and these updates are available for public review on our County website. The meetings will continue through 2016 and we encourage the active participation of community members in this important endeavor. In addition to the update of the Comprehensive Plan, we continue to refine, update and streamline the County’s land use permitting system through code updates and process changes. Those efforts will extend into 2016 as well.

La Plata County continues to maneuver through challenging financial times. Due to prudent financial management in the past, the County has managed a “soft landing” from the great recession. Property tax revenue is expected to increase by $1.8 million in 2016, but we believe this increase will be short lived as much of the County’s property tax base is related to natural  gas production. County Assessor Craig Larson reports that natural gas property tax revenue is expected to decrease significantly again in 2017 as a result of current declining production and low prices. He estimates tax revenues from natural gas could drop from 41% of the County’s  total property tax revenue in 2015 to 30% of the revenue in 2017.

For 2016, County revenues are projected at $79.9 million, which is a 16.4% increase over the $68.7 million anticipated in the 2015 budget. In total, the 2016 budget has $60 million in proposed operating expenditures and over $44 million in proposed one-time expenditures which includes road and bridge improvements, the purchase of the new Human Services building, and contingencies. The County is using its fund balance for one-time expenditures and  contingencies, the purpose for which such reserves are intended.

Safe roads and bridges for residents, school buses, customers and emergency vehicles is a critical obligation of La Plata County and are important to our local economy. The County currently has a backlog of capital Public Works projects, in part the result of rapid growth in the past that exceeded our ability to fund needed improvements, but also from the dramatic decrease in property tax revenues (nearly 50%) since 2010. As a result of the decline in property tax revenues, the level of the County’s road and bridge maintenance has been reduced and is not keeping pace with current or anticipated needs, particularly in light of the County’s population growth. Revenues shortfalls must be addressed in order to ensure that funding is sufficient to meet the growing demands placed on our local transportation system.

Road and Bridge capital projects are costly. During the thirteen year period from 2002 to 2014, the County invested approximately $40,700,000 in capital road and bridge projects, or an average of $3,100,000 per year. During that period, approximately $16,300,000 or 40% was funded by grants. However, based on the Long Term Finance Committee’s forecast, an average of $5.2 million is needed each year to maintain existing infrastructure and to make even modest improvements to our road and bridge infrastructure.

The La Plata County Fiscal Sustainability Steering Committee (the “Committee”) was convened by the BoCC in June, 2015 to advise the County how best to address capital improvement and operational needs, while maintaining a structurally balanced budget and preserving the County’s long-range fiscal sustainability. The Committee met seven times to review and discuss the Long Term Finance Committee’s County Fiscal Sustainability and Capital Improvements Analysis; various revenue and expenditure forecasting models; the County’s 10-year Capital Improvement Plan; road surface condition reports; projected road and bridge capital and maintenance needs; County growth trends and projections; and polling and past ballot election results. They presented the Board with three recommendations. They are: 1) To ask the voters for a mill levy increase; 2) To implement impact fees; and 3) Consider the implementation of a “Use Tax.” Additionally, the Committee recommended that revenue raised through these three recommendations should be dedicated exclusively to the Road and Bridge fund. In November, the ballot measure was defeated by 492 votes. While this was disappointing, La Plata County will continue to explore other options for increasing revenue including grants and a possible use tax and other fees, but these are not expected to generate funds sufficient to meet the needs for county roads.  We must find a way to bridge the gap.

Finally, we would remiss if we did not mention the impact of the Gold King Mine spill on our community.   This devastating spill contaminated the Animas, San Juan and Colorado Rivers as it traveled through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo Reservations. Over 80 County employees worked on the initial response and the BoCC continues to work with neighboring counties, tribes and state and federal government agencies to ensure a long-term solution to contamination of the Animas River.

We believe that citizen engagement is essential to good government and we welcome and encourage your active participation in meetings, surveys, and other opportunities for you to communicate your interests and concerns to us to aid us in making decisions on your behalf.

While we have many challenges on the horizon there are opportunities as well, and we are confident and enthusiastic as we look to our future. We continue our efforts to be a lean and highly effective organization, and our committed and innovative workforce serves the citizens of La Plata County with care and excellence. As your elected commissioners, we look forward to working with community members and our staff in the coming year as we strive for creativity in problem solving, excellence in service delivery and a continuing commitment to quality.