Craig, Moffat County leaders discuss revenue measures to avoid curtailing museum, library and parks
CRAIG — In a joint workshop Wednesday between the Moffat County Board of County Commissioners and the Craig City Council, community leaders discussed options to increase county revenues in the face of long-term budget woes.
During the meeting, the two local governmental bodies convened along with the committee of residents that makes up the Moffat County Revenue Task Force and several community “influencers,” including former elected officials and local business owners.
The meeting came after the county’s conversations with representatives of George K. Baum and Company, the consulting firm hired in February to gain voter input on a possible ballot measure.
During the discussion, a few themes emerged. Many in the audience called for more community involvement in the process, and both city and county emphasized a need to better convey their messages to the public. Those in the room also sought to involve more local elected officials, including the county assessor and sheriff.
BOCC Chairman Ray Beck opened with an overview of the county’s budget. Currently, the fate of county bank accounts is heavily reliant on extractive industries. The county’s largest taxpayer is Tri-State Generation and Transmission. With the 2025 closure of Craig Station’s Unit 1 looming, the county is seeking ways to improve the long-term outlook of the county budget. Most of the county’s income comes from property taxes, sales taxes and severance taxes from mineral leases. Revenue from these three sources have either flat-lined or fallen into a continuing decline. The valuation of county property taxes has decreased by more than a $100 million since 2011, a trend the BOCC expects to continue in 2018, Beck told the Craig Press in February.
Local officials also expressed concern about Craig and Moffat County’s changing demographics. The population is aging. About 35 percent of the county is older than age 50, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Craig is also suffering from brain drain — young people who grow up in the community often leave for higher education and don’t return. Craig Mayor John Ponikvar voiced worry that if Moffat County’s coal industry continues to decline, Craig’s population could see people who have high-paying jobs at the mines replaced with service workers traveling to work lower paying jobs in Steamboat Springs.
“You’re not going to have a tax base,” he said.
“Some of the tough choices could be what stays open? What doesn’t? How does that affect the community?” Commissioner Frank Moe said. “Anything that we do, like anything you do, affects all of us,” he added, motioning to the table where four City Council members sat.
Craig City Councilman Chris Nichols asked commissioners if the “hard choices” the commissioners had to make included closing the library and museum if the city doesn’t put up funds to support them. Commissioner Ray Beck responded that “The potential is there.”
Though the path forward remains unclear, and discussions remain hypothetical, the county properties most susceptible to budget cuts are likely the Moffat County Library, the Museum of Northwest Colorado and the county parks department, which includes Loudy-Simpson Park and Sherman Youth Camp. Other options that would impact the budget, such as creating a recreation district and combining city and county law enforcement, finance or parks departments, were casually mentioned. No actions, or even preliminary suggestions of actions, have been publicly taken on any of these ideas.
Like the county, the Museum of Northwest Colorado is also reliant on funds from mineral extraction. After facing a 47-percent decrease in revenue from the county general fund last year, the museum is largely funded by reserves set aside from the sale of museum-owned mineral leases. As oil and gas have hit a bust cycle in Moffat County, the money going into this fund has also tanked.
There are enough funds in reserves to keep the museum operating for two more years. After that, its future is uncertain.
In light of all this, commissioners — with advice from the Baum consultants — are exploring placing a mill levy before voters. The BOCC presented two handouts. One showed budget projections with current revenue sources and four projections of the county budget showing the impact of different mill levy rates. The other handout explained actions the commissioners have taken to curtail budget shortfalls.
“I understand the level of economic concern that we’re facing, but what I needed to hear, as a community member, is that all of our taxing entities were approaching this together,” said T. Wright Dickinson, a Moffat County rancher and former county commissioner. Throughout the meeting, audience members called for additional voices from organizations that weren’t in the room, including representatives of the Moffat County School District, the Build a Pool for Craig committee, Craig Fire/Rescue and the county assessor.
“We’re all either going to survive and grow together, or we’re all going to go down with the ship together,” Dickinson said. “What I don’t want in this process is a game of one-upsmanship, where somebody goes for a tax deal and then another one. That, I don’t think helps us.”
Dickinson spoke in reference to the city sales tax increase, which will be implemented in Craig in July after receiving narrow approval from voters in November. City officials say the tax increase will allow the city to continue to operate services at the current level to meet Craig residents’ expectations. Before the tax increase was passed, the city was on track for a budget crisis and possible curtailment of several services, including closing the city’s pool complex. Several audience members expressed concern that the increased sales tax will drive Craig’s consumers to make purchases in other communities or online.
Whatever happens, those gathered in the room at Colorado Northwestern Community College agreed that any ballot effort needs to be community-driven.
“The consensus was, if we go to the electorate with a mill levy, a tax, sales tax or rec district, that’s not going to fly,” said Kevin Peck, who serves on the Moffat County Revenue Task Force. “We need to communicate. It needs to be collaborative. It needs to be all-hands-on-deck to say ‘Hey, can we have a community that doesn’t have a library?’ I don’t think we can.'”
Due to a tight timeline, it’s unlikely that a revenue measure will be on the November ballot this year. A letter of intent to get a measure onto the ballot would have to be filed by July 31, Beck said.
Contact Eleanor Hasenbeck at 970-875-1795. Follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck.