For the first time since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964, Ouray County voted Democratic last week, giving Barack Obama 55 percent of the vote. Wright’s Mesa also went Democratic, albeit narrowly – Obama had an 11-vote margin out of 715 votes cast – after going solidly for Bush the last two elections. With Norwood’s first-time help, San Miguel County easily maintained its longtime blue status. Obama won 77 percent of the votes countywide, making San Miguel the bluest county in the state. The East End of San Miguel County gave Obama fully 85 percent of its vote, making the Telluride region almost as blue as the bluest jurisdiction in the United States, Washington, D.C., which went for Obama by 93 percent.
From this nearly bluest of blue redoubts, it is tempting to conclude that Telluride is spreading some blue influence to the surrounding communities, just as Obama made inroads nationally from central cities to the suburbs. This would confirm what we all sense, that as Telluride has grown increasingly expensive, former residents and new residents priced out of Telluride have settled in Norwood and Ridgway, shifting the culture in those historically conservative ranching communities. All over the Western Slope, towns “down valley” from ski resorts are being gentrified, which is one reason Colorado has tilted to the Democrats.
So what are we to make of the fact that in Norwood, Ridgway and Ouray, every tax measure on the ballot passed, while in the Telluride region all four tax measures failed?
Norwood voters approved a series of measures establishing a rec district and raising property taxes to fund it. In both Ouray and Ridgway, voters approved taxes for schools. In Ouray County, voters approved a sales tax to support road maintenance.
By contrast, in Telluride a sales tax increase to go to road maintenance failed, as did measures to approve bonds for a new medical center, a school addition and much-needed repairs to the Hwy. 145 Spur.
In the Telluride region, the argument against new taxes to support new projects was that we can’t afford them, not now, not with the global economy tanking. But both Norwood and Ouray County are every bit as afflicted by the economic downturn as is Telluride, and Telluride has rarely turned down tax measures in the recent past, while voters on Wright’s Mesa and in Ouray County have been far more reluctant to approve them.
What happened this year?
To begin, we know from the Obama vote we know that the Telluride region did not become more conservative in any broad sense, but both Wright’s Mesa and Ouray County did become more liberal. We can speculate that the liberal shift reflects a combination of the general exhaustion with the Bush Administration that occurred nationwide and an influx of new residents. Either way, by traditional political metrics, a bluer electorate may have been more favorably disposed to tax measures.
OK, so why would the bluest of all blue electorates in the state – Telluride – suddenly turn so decisively against taxes?
By most reckoning, all of the issues before the electorate in the Telluride region were reasonable. As the saying goes, they were “needs, not wants,” and if all four had passed, the increase in property tax bills wouldn’t really have been all that big compared to what we already pay, a very small percentage increase. It is especially striking that this was the first defeat of a school bond measure in modern Telluride history.
Why did voters feel the need to declare their strong opposition to spending?
In the absence of polling data, all we have are theories, but here’s mine: Voters in the Telluride region have this huge number stuck in their collective mind: $50 million for the Valley Floor. And this comes on top of years of approvals for tax measures. In the past decade we have had a new middle/high school, already expanded once, with a performing arts center as part of the expansion; an addition to the Telluride Elementary School; a new public library; a new indoor ice rink; streetscapes improvements in Telluride; voter approval of a new municipal water system in Telluride; the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village; taxpayer support of the Capella Hotel project; taxpayer support of the gondola; and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few goodies we are already taking for granted.
But it’s the Valley Floor acquisition that really stings financially, even though nearly half of the purchase price came from private donations. I’m not suggesting that buying the Valley Floor was a mistake, although I do believe that preserving the vast bulk of it at minimal taxpayer cost was the better option. What I’m saying is that buying the Valley Floor tapped us out, at least for some years ahead, in tackling other costly problems.
We were told that approving bonds for the Valley Floor wouldn’t raise taxes, and it didn’t, because those bonds are backed by the 20 percent of unencumbered town revenues dedicated to the Open Space Fund. But this is disingenuous because if we hadn’t issued bonds backed by that revenue stream, that money could have been made available for other uses. The Valley Floor bonds didn’t cost us only if you believe that 20 percent of town revenues should be dedicated to open space forever. As an example, if we had secured the Valley Floor without bonding for it, we might have used some of the revenues tied up to back those bonds for the repair of the Spur.
But here we are: We have the bulk of the Valley Floor, the world’s most glorious front yard, which is a good thing, but we can’t afford a new medical center, a school expansion or a safe highway. Meanwhile, our “bedroom communities” have chosen to invest in their public sphere, even in the face of a deteriorating economy.
Without question, we made open space our highest priority. Having done so, we must now forgo or postpone other prudent community investments.
I think there may be something even deeper at work in the psyche of the Telluride-area voter. Government bonds, including those Telluride Open Space bonds, are backed by tax revenues, namely a combination of sales taxes, property taxes and real estate transfer taxes, which derive ultimately from the local economy.
Given the growing frailty of our local economy – we are, after all, a remote resort town with precious few hotel rooms, anemic sales tax revenues, and real estate sales in a steep decline – if you had a few extra bucks to invest somewhere, would you put them into Telluride municipal bonds? Even if they were highly rated? (After the Wall Street meltdown, who believes the ratings?)
If not, why on earth would you vote yes on new bonds backed by new taxes?