Garfield County commissioners urge river district to ask for tax increase

The Colorado River flowing west from Glenwood Springs.
Thomas Phippen / Post Independent

The Garfield County board of commissioners’ had some advice Monday to the Colorado River Water Conservation District: don’t wait to ask for a property tax increase.

“This is a tough county for new taxes,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said at a meeting Monday.

River district Director Andy Mueller presented the commission with the possibility of asking taxpayers to double the existing mill levy for Garfield and 14 other counties. Currently, the River district levies about a quarter mill on properties, which has been enough since about 1992.

Under the 2019 assessment rate, the river district’s current quarter-mill levy comes out to $1.79 on a $100,000 home. If increased, the half-mill would cost the same home $3.58 in property taxes.

But with cost increases, decreasing revenues from oil and gas development, and several crises looming over the Western Slope’s water, the current tax is simply not enough, Mueller said.

“We see a declining revenue at a time when there is a very identifiable increased need for money for water projects in western Colorado,” Mueller said in an interview.

Mueller said the river district has cut costs in recent years, but sustaining current operations requires an increase.

And the district wants to support important projects that are currently unfunded, like identifying and developing small high-mountain reservoirs.

Those reservoirs could play a role in keeping streams flowing, and supplementing water for agriculture and municipalities “during times of severe hot, dry summers that we’re having more and more of,” Mueller said.

“We can’t do it with the current revenue stream,” he added, which is why he again asked the district’s board to look into placing the tax increase on the November 2020 ballot.

The Garfield County commissioners expressed support for the mill levy ballot language.

“From my perspective, with the economy going as it is, if there’s a good time to ask for a tax increase it’s probably now,” Jankovsky said.

“The longer you wait, the harder it’s going to be,” Commissioner John Martin added.

Jankovsky also took the opportunity to criticize Senate Bill 19-181, which called for stricter regulations on oil and gas development across Colorado to promote public health and safety.

The effect, however, is that a thriving industry that supports Garfield County, as well as areas of the Front Range, will likely go away, according to Jankovsky.

“There will be no more capital dollars coming into the state,” he said, since it is easier to drill for oil and harvest natural gas elsewhere in the West.

The majority of Garfield County’s revenue comes from oil and gas developers, and the river district is in a similar situation, Mueller said.

“In 2013, 24 percent of our revenue came from the fossil fuel industry,” Mueller told the commissioners. “Today, it’s close to 11 percent.”

If the river district’s board approves the ballot language, and voters approve the property tax in November, it would bring in an additional $4.9 million to the district.

Mueller suggests using most of that for the special water projects. One example is the Windy Gap bypass, which would reconstruct a channel around the reservoir to preserve fish habitats and river flows.

The river district’s mission is “to make sure we have water for all of our industries and economic activity, everything from recreation to agriculture,” Mueller said, but that’s impossible without sufficient funding.

Municipalities in the eastern part of the state have far more money set aside for water projects, Mueller said.

“We’re literally 1/10th to 1/100th of what they spend,” Mueller said, and cities further downstream in the Colorado River Valley, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, outspend the river district by a greater margin.

“And yet, our district produces 60 percent of the water in the river every year,” Mueller said.

“If we’re going to protect our water users, and make sure our environmental future and our economic future is preserved, we need a better war chest.”

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