Angry residents bemoan proposed county tax hikes

Budget hearing is sparsely attended, comments resonate

Michelle Blackburn expresses her disappointment with the Grand County Council’s budget at a public hearing Tuesday. Photo by Doug McMurdo

A comprehensive presentation on the 2020 Grand County budget – which includes more than $1.7 million in a not-yet-approved property tax increase – was not enough to pacify a handful of residents Tuesday night when the Grand County Council held a public hearing.

The major reason behind the need for the tax increase dates to 2018 when the council approved near universal pay increases for employees and elected officials, including themselves, without an identified revenue source. Instead, the county essentially took money from the general operating fund.

“A salary increase without a revenue stream in the pipeline is unconscionable,” said resident Michelle Blackburn, who sits on several boards in Grand County and manages a number of properties on behalf of her family. Blackburn said the decision was “especially” egregious after the county later put a temporary stop to overnight lodging developments, which she described as a property right. She credited Council Member Curtis Wells, who said as much during a meeting earlier this year, for recognizing the problem. She said she values county staff and the council, but she “also values fiscal responsibility.

“What will you give up for the pay raises?” said Petenia Pfnister. Her question was rhetorical, but her point was clear: There has to be give and take. Pfnister noted a survey done at the behest of Council Member Jaylyn Hawks asking department heads what they would have to do to balance their respective budgets without a property tax increase, and said it was all “doom and gloom.”

Pfnister was critical of the Grand County Sheriff’s Office for always needing “the latest and greatest” vehicles, and she also said the practice of handing sheriff’s vehicles off to other departments once they reach 100,000 miles is no longer done. She said the county’s road department seems to have new equipment. “You add up all the taxes … you’re killing us,” she said.

Merlene Dalton said a proposed property tax increase would cause significant harm to older residents who live solely on their social security checks. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Merlene Dalton said senior citizens such as her receive about $1,200 a month in social security benefits. While she doesn’t rely solely on that income to survive, many of her single friends do. She said they would have to set aside $165 of that monthly allotment in order to pay their property tax each year.

“You guys need to get a grip,” she said.

Marc Horwitz said his property tax is going to increase from about $4,000 to $5,000 a year if the property tax is approved later this month. He said there were a number of things Grand County could do to save money. He suggested the council could sell the Old Spanish Trail Arena, which he called “an anchor” that is a “big waste of money.” He said the county should turn the land OSTA sits on into an affordable housing development.

He also said the sheriff’s and jail’s budgets are too high and that the county should get out of the “jail business.” They could then use the jail to make room for more county offices. Horwitz also ridiculed the council for the “300 percent” pay raise members approved last year. “Put some of that back,” he said. “This is not a sustainable situation … good luck to us all.”

Lisa Carter said she struggles to make ends meet and feels fortunate to own her own home. She said low wages in Grand County are hurting people and she asked the council to consider supporting an increase to the minimum wage. She told The Times-Independent that it should be set at $15 an hour.

Written comments can be submitted until 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, via email at [email protected] or to the administration office at the Grand County Courthouse.