Like many in rural America, Allen Coyne has multiple jobs. He’s Julesburg’s town manager. He can string utility poles and bring power to people’s homes. He knows how to operate the wastewater treatment plant in a pinch. He even can act as a real estate agent.
“This is the only place that I know of that you can buy the ground from the town and we are actually the real estate agent,” explained Coyne.
Just like back in the 1800s homestead days, land is so cheap here near the Nebraska border that you can buy it from the government. But there have been few buyers in this town of 1,200. Mostly people are moving away from surrounding Sedgwick County. Farms are consolidating, a truck stop shut down, and the Cabela’s right over the border in Nebraska cut back on some high paying jobs.
That puts Sedgwick County in a bind.
Countywide population has decreased 30 percent over the last 50 years. County commissioners say it’s been a struggle to attract new businesses and talent — a familiar lament across rural Colorado. The numbers mean the tax base, and county services, have taken a hit. So for the first time in 40 years, county commissioners here are throwing up their hands and asking voters for a 2 percent sales tax hike.
“We are not bs-ing you of how this is,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Don Schneider.
“If our tax increase doesn’t pass, we’re probably going to have to look at a four-day week, cutting some services, maybe another employee. I don’t know where. We’re so thin.”
County Commissioner is Schneider’s “other” job. He farms just under 2,000 acres on the outskirts of Julesburg. Low farming revenues have gut punched rural Colorado’s economy in recent years.
Schneider says commissioners also cleaning up after bad decisions in the past. A few years ago the county board temporarily decreased property taxes and forgot to restore them. That translates into just under $300,000 a year in lost revenue.
While he talks about belt-tightening, another constant reminder of budget woes comes from the loud air conditioning unit that clicks on and off throughout the day in Schneider’s office.
“That’s another past commissioner thing,” he explained. “They put in this expensive dang thermal unit. They didn’t save any money because what they traded in natural gas costs, now they’re paying in electric costs.”
For Schneider, the choice on election day is stark: continue to have budget deficits, or chart a new course with a tax hike.
But that has some local business owners crying foul. Tax property, not sales, they say. Because that’s where they money is in farm country.
One of the biggest sales tax contributors in Sedgwick county is a thriving retail marijuana shop a few miles off Interstate 76. Sedgwick Alternative Relief is the first retail shop you can get to coming in from Nebraska.
“All I see happening is more customers walking out our door after taking the time to come off the highway, get out of their car, sit and wait in our lobby and get to our counter and then purchase nothing,” said the store’s manager Kurt Hodel.
Hodel’s business has already taken a hit because marijuana prices are plummeting. Now he worries that higher taxes will force his customers to neighboring counties. He’s threatened to close his growing operation in Sedgwick if voters approve the tax because “we’re effectively producing our own marijuana at a higher rate than I can wholesale purchase it.”
Voters here are split.
“Any time you try to raise taxes, it’s a fight,” said Chad Hoschouer, the mayor of Julesburg. As much as a tax increase is unpopular, a future without a tax hike looks even worse. Take for example, the county-funded regional hospital.
“Right now the county is worried about the hospital,” said Hoschouer. “Is that something now where, ‘Oh, we have to cut some people. We can’t service as many people?’”
Campaign materials paint a bleak picture. Life without a tax increase could also mean no birth or death certificates. Less road and bridge maintenance. Fewer patrolling sheriff’s deputies.
Voters will decide what their future looks like here this November.
This story is part of CPR’s Road Trip to November coverage. Our reporters and producers are traveling around the state to hear what is on people’s minds ahead of the upcoming election. You’ll see more of these stories in the weeks to come.