Funding the City of Pueblo

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June 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm  •  Posted in Pueblo by  •  14 Comments

This piece was published as a guest column in the Opinion Section of the Pueblo Chieftain on July 14. 2013.  Scroll down to see a full-size picture of the front page of the section.

Recently a hike in local sales tax has been proposed to fund 6 major non-profit organizations providing important services and cultural attractions to visitors and residents of Pueblo County.  The organizations that have banded together include Pueblo Animal Services, Colorado State Fair, Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, Historic Riverwalk of Pueblo, Nature and Raptor Center and the Pueblo Zoo.  While I applaud the effort to fund these important organizations, because I believe they contribute significantly to the quality of life in Pueblo (some more than others, but that’s another topic), I disagree with the use of sales tax as the primary funding mechanism.

Here’s why:

1. Pueblo sales tax is currently 3.5%.  Combined with State sales tax that’s 7.5% – already pretty steep.  To me, Pueblo ought to be marketing itself as the best bargain in Colorado, a place where you can enjoy a warmer, sunnier version of the Rocky Mountain lifestyle but at a fraction of the cost paid by residents of Denver Metro and Colorado Springs.  A higher sales tax rate would only serve to dilute that message.

2. Sales taxes unfairly burden low-income citizens.  As a percent of income, a sales tax increase will hit low-income Puebloans harder than any other type of tax.  With high unemployment and a fragile economy, the last thing we need is to squeeze those closest to the edge of homelessness, hunger or other circumstances that may push them into criminal activity or other resource-intensive public problems.  Now, I don’t want to invite hikes in property tax or some other business tax either but the problem with sales tax is that it represents a more significant hit for people living at or near poverty. We need a more creative solution.

3. A sales tax increase may be a reasonable short-term band-aid to help important organizations get through another fiscal cycle but, on a long-term basis, I would prefer that these organizations remain part of the general budget and I would prefer efforts to diversify sources of revenue to properly fund ALL local public services.  A higher sales tax won’t help revitalize Pueblo’s downtown core and it won’t encourage more people to choose Pueblo as a great place to retire, go to college or raise a family.  Actually, it may weaken all these things by encouraging people to move outside the city where sales taxes are lower.  We want to encourage people to move into the City of Pueblo not encourage flight to the periphery of the county.

That’s the list of problems I see.  I don’t like to criticize without offering my own solution.  So, here’s what I would propose as an alternative.  I like this idea because it would both raise revenue and deter sprawl.  Along with development of the Riverwalk and the Creative Corridor and other efforts to revitalize Pueblo’s central business districts we should be discouraging people from living in far out suburban and exurban locations where they increase traffic congestion and utilize city services without contributing a fair share to the property tax base or to the vitality of the city.

So, what’s the solution?

Install a toll booth on US Highway 50,  just west of Pueblo Boulevard and charge a fee for all eastbound passenger vehicles (driving from Pueblo West into Pueblo).  Here’s why this solution makes sense to me.  First, it targets individuals who obviously want to utilize Pueblo’s amenities but don’t pay a fair share of municipal taxes.  Second, it would serve to reduce traffic on US 50, the most congested stretch of road in Pueblo County.  Currently, the traffic count is in the neighborhood of 50,000 vehicles per day.  If we charge $1 per inbound vehicle we would generate tons of cash to keep our important cultural organizations afloat and maybe some left over to help fight crime or improve public schools.  Third, this commuter tax would discourage additional sprawl in Pueblo West.

pueblomap-tollbooth

 

A beautiful view in PW

A beautiful view in PW

To be honest, I don’t know why anyone would want to live in PW.  Better view of the mountains?  Yes, I suppose.  But, the wind, the dust, the acre after acre of bleak prairie land, complete dependency on a car.  I’ve talked to many people who moved to the Pueblo area, decided to buy a new or newer home in PW and now regret it…a lot.  Growth in Pueblo West was fueled by the same mortgage credit bubble partially responsible for dismantling the economy in 2009.  Cheap land, easy credit, granite counter tops in an unsustainable location.  Sound familiar?  For me, it brings to mind stories of California’s foreclosure capitals, like Stockton or San Bernadino.  It was a mistake then to build new houses in the middle of a barren wind-swept prairie, and it doesn’t make any more sense now.

Now, I have wonderful friends who live in Pueblo West.  I don’t love them any less.  But, I do wish they would move into Pueblo and help the rest of us build a great city rather than following the failed example of sprawl that has hollowed out too many urban neighborhoods and weakened too many great cities.   Let’s follow a different course in Pueblo.  Let’s encourage walkability, a sense of place and a strong community.  Let’s discourage Southern California style urban sprawl and the resulting formation of neighbor-less neighborhoods and a car-dependent culture.

Come on, Pueblo.  Let’s fund our important cultural institutions.  But, let’s do so in a way that will strengthen the core of the city.

Here’s an image of the Chieftain’s Opinion page display.  I like the US 50 graphic.

chieftain-opinion

14 Comments

  1. richard / July 5, 2013 at 10:23 pm / Reply

    Great thoughts, on both the problems of sales tax, and the suggestion of a Toll Booth. Growing up in Dallas, I can attest to the impact that tolls have on traffic patterns, and at the same time, the capacity of sprawl to sprawl nonetheless for the willing…see PLANO! In that case it made a really nice highway, and generated lots of cash – unfortunately not for general public use like your suggestion would.
    Plus the one issue that proponents of Sales Taxes always seem to forget is that it really does hit the low income disproportionately- whether it be a federal IRS-replacement version, or a more modest local one like this. I think some folks just pick the sales tax option because they can “stick it” to everyone, unlike property taxes that don’t directly impact renters etc.
    On a side note, I also wanted to commend your blog, in general. We’re looking to move to Pueblo (city, thanks very much) and I find the perspective and discussions here to be much more enlightening than anything else I’ve read trying to get a feel for living there. We’ve lived nearby before, in both Canon city and COS, but are trying to better understand life in Pueblo and your blog has been very helpful.

    • Justin / July 8, 2013 at 9:31 am / Reply

      Richard, thank you for the feedback! Yes, life in Pueblo will be a bit different. I love Canon City! And I think, culturally, Canon City is probably a bit closer to Pueblo than Springs. But, Pueblo will have a different feel. Let me know if you have any questions or concerns that I might be able to help address. Best wishes on your move! I hope you will be happy in Pueblo. Let me know when you’re ready for your first slopper! Cheers, J.

  2. Chris Moran / July 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm / Reply

    I love this idea!!

    I agree with you that Pueblo is an under-appreciated gem that represents an amazing value. We should do everything we can to encourage the revitalization of Pueblo’s core, and to discourage sprawl… and the diminished quality of life that comes with sprawl.

    Keep up the great work.

    I would gladly help promote these ideas, like the Highway 50 toll, improving Pueblo walkability, and other smart re-investments in our community.

    • Justin / July 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm / Reply

      Thanks for the positive feedback, Chris!

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  6. Dave Brown / May 27, 2014 at 12:08 pm / Reply

    Justin,

    I have really enjoyed your Pueblo blogs and they have helped to reinforce my own thoughts that it would be a good place to retire. I was born in Walsenburg, still have a lot of family in Huerfano County, and a lot of family who have lived in Pueblo off and on, so it’s not unfamiliar territory for me. Chances are my wife and I will call Pueblo home when retirement comes within the next couple of years.

    However, I have to take issue with your perspective on Pueblo West. I think this article is very much an expression of your own personality and values. I can tell from your writings that you enjoy high-density urban life. I truly understand your points about that lifestyle: being less car-dependent, the sense of history, the feeling of community, and the proximity to culture, restaurants, shopping, etc. But there are others of us who prefer a different lifestyle. I grew up without concrete: no curbs, gutters, sidewalks – actually very little pavement of any kind. Now, after decades of urban and suburban life, I am back on a dirt road, with not a square foot of concrete in sight (except for my garage floor). I love the feeling of real dirt under my feet; yes, it makes for more mud and dust, but for me it’s a fair trade-off. I love watching real native wild birds instead of “urban wildlife” consisting of pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows. I love being able to sit on my front and back porches knowing I’m not being watched from a half-dozen different directions. Give me a low-density life, close to the earth, without concrete.

    While I agree that the Pueblo West development was in many ways a debacle (I once owned a piece of property there), I would live there in a heartbeat. In addition to the values above, I love to fish; I would be on that lake all the time. Keep in mind that pretty much all of Pueblo was once barren desert, and many of the neighborhoods you enjoy so much were once outlying suburban developments. I’m sure the toll idea is tongue-in-cheek, but I think you’ve got it backwards: Folks coming in from outlying areas actually contribute positively to the Pueblo economy; they pay the same 7.5% sales tax and they are much less drain on city resources than are residents. If we put a toll booth on 50 West, why not one on I-25 South and catch all my Huerfano County relatives who drive to Pueblo once a week to go to the doctor, shop at Walmart, etc. Maybe one on 50 East, too, to catch those pesky Blende and Boone residents; there aren’t very many of them, but every buck helps! ;-)

    Urban sprawl (e.g., Denver, Los Angeles, Dallas) is the direct result of booming economies. Pueblo is relatively devoid of sprawl for no reason other than that they have not been “cursed” with an economic boom in recent history.

    Again, I truly appreciate your good work. Just trying to point out that not everybody exactly shares your lifestyle values.

    • Justin / May 27, 2014 at 2:33 pm / Reply

      Hi Dave, how dare you crash my blog with a thoughtful well-written argument to the contrary! :)
      You’re right to a certain extent but I think what Pueblo West represents sits somewhere between your low-density back-to-nature lifestyle, which I enjoy and admire quite a bit as well, and the urban, walk-able, higher density neighborhoods that my article advocates. And, despite your well-reasoned comments, I still think of this in-between density level as sprawl in a negative sense. I lived in Eugene, Oregon for about 11 years and, while there are problems there just like anywhere else, I think Eugene does a lot of things correctly. One of the many policies that maximizes both of our valued living environments is the establishment of urban growth boundaries. Cities are difficult to manage and if the infrastructure stretches too far in multiple directions it becomes even more difficult and a lot more expensive for taxpayers. By containing housing development within a fixed boundary the city of Eugene is able to plan and maintain infrastructure more effectively. Like you, many people prefer “country” living – closer to nature, further from crowds, etc. Outside of Eugene’s urban growth boundaries in Lane County land parcels must be a minimum of 5 acres in size (if I recall correctly). This works well because it prevents new construction from encroaching on property where owners want to retain privacy and it creates a very pleasant countryside where nature has room to stretch out. The problem I have with Pueblo West is that it tries to accommodate both sides of the coin and, in my opinion, fails on both counts. Even if it succeeds for its many residents who enjoy living there, it does so, generally, at Pueblo’s expense. Cheap land and new construction attracts home buyers and reduces investment in Pueblo’s urban core. As a result, city property values suffer along with public schools and other city services dependent on property tax revenues. It’s the same hollowing out of the core that has occurred in several of the cities you’ve mentioned. Growth extends outward until the sprawl and associated traffic become nearly unbearable and only then does investment begin to move back into downtown urban areas. Is that going to be the plan for Pueblo? Wait decades for sprawl to make life in Pueblo County so annoying that people begin to reconsider neighborhoods closer to the city center? I hope not. People who live in outlying areas do indeed contribute to the local economy by paying sales taxes when they visit/shop in town but when you take into consideration the additional expenses required to manage more than double the urban/suburban footprint, the loss of property value in town and the migration of higher income families to the periphery leaving the city core to deal with those on the lower end, the resulting configuration is bad news for all residents in the area. Why? Because everyone then must pay more for local government and both of us (back to nature types and new urban types) have less healthy habitat in which to dwell.
      In any case, thank you Dave for the very thoughtful comments. I agree this post is an expression of my own values. But, it’s not the case that I have a problem with those who desire low-density living. I just wish our land-use regulations would better protect city-slickers and country-folk alike.
      Best wishes,
      Justin

  7. Dave Brown / May 27, 2014 at 7:50 pm / Reply

    Thanks Justin. Yes, I have also lived in Eugene… and Springfield, and Santa Clara. But you’re absolutely right: it’s your blog. ;-)

    To shift gears, can I ask a quick question? You own rental properties; is Pueblo a good market for that? I know home prices are relatively cheap, but are good renters easy to come by?

    • Justin / May 28, 2014 at 10:27 am / Reply

      Yes, in my opinion Pueblo is an excellent market for rental properties. Good renters aren’t *easy* to come by but there are plenty of good tenants in the market if you’re patient and screen carefully.

      • Dave Brown / May 28, 2014 at 10:42 am / Reply

        Thank you again Justin.
        I think I’ll give it a try!
        All the best,
        Dave

        • Justin / May 28, 2014 at 10:44 am / Reply

          Sounds good, Dave. Let me know if you want to grab a coffee and talk real estate when you’re in town. Best wishes, Justin

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