The latest sales tax figures released by the City of Rifle appear to show the economic recovery in Rifle looks a lot like it does in the U.S. overall: Things are improving, but much more slowly than anyone would like.Through July, Rifle's sales tax revenues are up by 5 percent to $4.1 million, compared to $3.9 million at this time in 2011, according to data from the city's finance department. However, data released in late March showed revenues up 11 percent over the previous year. This suggests spending has slowed as the year progresses, raising doubts about the strength of the overall recovery. "I am a little concerned, as this is the third month in a row where the growth rate [of sales tax revenue] has been lower than it was for that same month the year before," said Finance Director Charles Kelty.In other words, Rifle has seen three straight months of sales tax growth less robust than the same span of 2011. "I'm hoping these numbers pick up a bit with hunters coming in the fall," said Kelty. During July, the largest revenue decline in percentage terms occurred in the liquor sector, where sales tax receipts were $14,583, down 23 percent from July 2011. Year-to-date liquor sales are essentially flat, compared to 2011. Linda Trujillo, the owner of Rocky Mountain Liquors in Rifle, said her numbers are certainly down. "But that doesn't mean volume is down," she said. People are still coming in, "but they could just be buying $15 bottles, rather than $20 bottles like they were before. People are watching stuff now." The only other double-digit decline in July took place in the motels category, where the picture has continued to worsen since the first quarter. Overall motel revenues were $94,295, down by 7 percent so far this year, and revenues in July dropped by 14 percent compared to July 2011, to $18,863. "Right now, one month is worse than the previous month," said Marcin Maj, who operates the Winchester Motel in downtown Rifle with his wife, Ana. Local hotels have struggled since gas companies began drawing down their area workforce in the late 2000s. "Back then, sometimes we didn't even have room for tourists," said Maj, who managed the hotel in 2008 and 2009 before moving to Chicago for several years. "In my opinion, this town never advertised itself because there was no need," he said. "We are paying a lot of money in city taxes, and in my opinion, the city should do a bit more advertising for us." There were some bright spots in the July sales tax report: Revenues from oil and gas activity are up 31 percent over last year, as are revenues from hardware sales. Oil and gas revenues fluctuate widely depending on individual companies' development plans, Kelty said. So, they aren't always reliable indicators of an improving economy. But the numbers from the hardware sector, combined with an up-tick in motor vehicle taxes from purchases of new and used cars, paint a more encouraging picture. "July was one of the better months that we've had," said Alan Cyr, finance manager at Columbine Ford in Rifle, the city's only new car dealer. "The year started out horrendously, but we have been inching back up since then." Other notable figures from the July 2012 sales tax report: • Total general fund revenues are $4.3 million, up 2 percent compared to last year, while total expenditures are up 22 percent, to $4.9 million, largely due to the ongoing cost of administering two federal transportation and planning grants. The federal government will reimburse Rifle for these expenses at the end of the year. • Water fund expenses continue to trend above last year's levels at $1.7 million. Operating and maintenance expenses are up 22 percent, to $1.1 million, over 2011 due to costs associated with the aging Graham Mesa water treatment plant. Water rights expenses have risen 62 percent to more than $114,000, as the city has leased water from senior rights holders in the ongoing drought. • Sanitation fund revenues are 15 percent lower than they were at this time in 2011. Last November, the city contracted with Mountain Refuse Inc. to handle garbage collection, resulting in lower collection costs.
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