Montrose City Council needs to consider inflation, true construction costs, people’s “aversion” to taxes and possibly adjusting sales tax currently charged on food, members of the public said during Monday’s forum on a possible public safety sales tax.
The city is eyeing a sales tax increase to fund an expansion of the Montrose Police Department force and police station. Growing crime rates justify asking for the increase, an appointed committee that studied the issue for months found, recommending council ask voters to bump up sales tax.
Council has since floated a 0.5 percent figure — about 50 cents for every $100 spent — for the ballot language, which must be certified by Sept. 3.
Montrose Police Chief Blaine Hall kicked off Monday’s presentation by describing two Montroses: The one seen when people enjoy the water sports park, the scenery, or downtown, and the one he and his officers see, entailing 31,000 incidents last year alone — an increase of nearly 10,000 incidents since 2010.
“It’s not just that we’ve been increasing. It’s the kinds of cases we’re dealing with,” Hall said.
Stats pointed to a 51-percent increase in felony crimes, including recent armed robberies and a shooting on East Main Street.
Hall also pointed to multiple grams of methamphetamine and doses of heroin that were pulled from the streets in just the past month or so, as well as the more than 60 sexual assaults reported each year. (Not all such reports lead to arrests.)
The MPD now on average takes on two felony cases a day, Hall said — and, criminals are becoming more brazen. “We’re seeing them walk right into homes and steal purses and wallets off the counter,” he said.
None of the stats, he said, are to suggest Montrose is on par with a metropolis like Chicago, but the cases do highlight the severity of local crimes and the fact that the police force’s staffing cannot keep pace.
Crime is going up throughout the 7th Judicial District, District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said, also alerting the audience to “fundamental changes” coming when a new law concerning drug possession goes into effect next March. Possession of under 4 grams of a controlled substance will no longer be classed as a felony in Colorado. The move may reduce the number of felony cases, but it likely will not decrease the actual amount of drugs flowing through the streets, Hall and Hotsenpiller said; instead, it will have the effect of limiting the tools to deal with drugs.
Hall also reiterated he can only put four officers on a shift and an average response time — at about 17 minutes, well above the national recommended average — that surprised even him.
Hall also devoted time to addressing criticism that has surfaced publicly, including the number of officers responding to calls; patrol vehicles parked at homes and how else the city spends public money. Although many have raised questions via social media, the public forum was sparsely attended Monday.
“When people criticize and say, ‘You should have known, City of Montrose, you should have funded public safety. You should have known it was changing’ — it has literally changed since the time we presented the (findings of) the public safety committee,” Hall said.
He also reminded the public it is not possible to tell just by passing by a scene what is going on, and from that, accurately determine how many officers should have responded. On such incident brought several officers to a gas station earlier this month; that was because two people with warrants had been found in a stolen vehicle, and in possession of a stolen gun, Hall said.
Officers park their patrol vehicles at home because they can be called out on emergencies, like last year’s standoff at a local hotel; also, the units increase the feeling of a police presence in a neighborhood and are a deterrent, Hall said.
Public safety shares the general fund with streets and public works, the latter of which are also vital. Of the approximately $56 million city budget, the general fund is about $21.7 million and 45 percent of it goes to public safety, while 30 percent goes to public works and 25 percent to administration. Other types of funding in the city’s budget cannot necessarily be used for police, especially grant funding of the sort paying for a new trails project.
It is not true the city has left public safety’s budget flat, Hall said. The city has increased the public safety’s (patrol and admin) budget by about $2.3 million in the past eight years, he said. The city will not reduce its general fund funding for the police if it secures the tax increase, Hall also said: “This is not a bait and switch.”
Montrose resident Dee Laird said later the ballot language should firmly limit any sales tax increase to only public safety spending.
“The ballot language has to be really strong so that any of this money that comes in, if this sales tax passes, that is totally for the police department,” Laird said. He also said the city needs to consider inflation when determining the amount it will seek.
Fellow attendee John W. Nelson pointed to an estimated $9 million - $12 million to expand the police department building onto city property next door, with two stories and the possibility of a third. He said that estimate was well below the reality of current construction prices and council should consider that before fixing the sales tax increase rate, lest it ask for too little.
Mayor Dave Bowman said city staff and the public safety committee are in the process of looking at that; at a previous council workshop, Mayor Pro-Tem Barbara Bynum had also been concerned with current construction costs.
“We do have some time. We’ll make a good decision,” Bowman said.
Hall and others also provided information showing that, contrary to common perception, Montrose does not have the highest sales tax on the Western Slope. It is lower than many and also, the city does not have a property tax.
Resident Jean Deneen said the numbers presented did not strike her as an apples-to-apples comparison, because Montrose charges sales tax on food items and the regional municipalities cited by the city do not.
Montrose residents decided long ago to tax food, and in the early 2000s, voted to keep that tax, Bowman said.
“Part of the argument is that it is a very regressive tax for those that are at poverty level,” Bowman said, but added those who are on public assistance do not pay sales tax on their food. Montrose, unlike other cities, does not have a property tax; that was the trade-off, he said.
Deneen said food tax is regressive on everyone, not just those on public assistance. She suggested the city consider piggybacking the sales tax increase on rescinding the food tax.
Getting rid of the sales tax on food would remove $3.8 million from the budget, City Manager Bill Bell said — and doing that would mean the city would have to ask voters for at least double the projected 0.5 percent increase, he said.
Further, those who think most communities exempt food from sales tax are incorrect, Bell said: only 38 of 271 Colorado cities have such an exemption.
Ultimately, the tax rates of other cities are not relevant, Nelson said. “It’s our problem and whatever money it takes to solve it, either we’re going to pay the bill or not,” he said.
Resident Stephen Woody pointed out people tend to be “tax averse” in Montrose. Because crime is unlikely to decrease, perhaps the city should ask for more of an increase at the outset, he said.
Council “wrestled” with that, Bowman said.
“We understand the tax aversion in this area and that’s why at this point, we’re not going to ask for more than what we need now. We do believe that as our community grows and tourism grows, the total dollars will also grow,” Bowman said.
“Rome really is burning and we’ve got to do something about it,” said David Reed, the chairman of the public safety committee.
“ … We cannot sweep it under the carpet.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer.
Present staffing at MPD
6 patrol sergeants
27 sworn officers
1 detective sergeant
Civilian support staff
Number of officers on shift at a given time: 4
Public safety tax considerations
0.75 percent, or 75 cents for every $100, would raise $4.46 million;
0.60 percent, $3.57 million
0.55 percent, $3.27 million
0.50 percent, $2.97 million
0.45 percent, $2.65 million
Police Department requested funding:
First year startup operations $3.1 million
Ongoing annual ops: $2.1 million
Police station building expansion: $11.5 million construction estimate, with 25-year amortization and approximately $700,000 per year debt service repayment; this portion of sales tax increase would sunset at 25 years.
Montrose sales tax, compared to other towns:
Montrose’s current sales tax is 7.95 percent
Delta: 7.9 percent
Fruita: 8.27 percent
Steamboat Springs: 8.4 percent
Durango: 8.4 percent
Grand Junction: 8.52 percent
Glenwood Springs: 8.6 percent
Telluride: 8.65 percent
Gunnison: 8.9 percent
Ridgway: 9.05 percent
Ouray: 9.45 percent