02 December 2014

Leadville In Decline

The Denver Post reports the imminent decline of the only hospital in Lake County that is home to the town of Leadville, which is 135 years old, because local voters refused to support a property tax increase needed to keep St. Vincent hospital's doors open.  The hospital also provide's the county's only nursing home and ambulance service, in addition to its emergency room.

This would appear to leave the town's urgent care facility as the highest level of medical care available in the county.  This facility amounts to Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger and her two physicians assistants.  The good doctor is no doubt competent and hard working, but will be hard pressed to replace a full fledged hospital emergency room in a hospital complex previous staffed by 107 employees.

Lake County has 7,300 residents of whom 2,600 live in Leadville, the only municipality in the county (and the highest elevation city in the United States at 10,152 feet).  The closest hospital is now in Frisco, 33 miles away along slippery snowy roads in the winter.  About 60% of the county's residents are on Medicaid.

The closing of the hospital will cost the county about 107 jobs and will cost the local economy $8 million.  Sales tax revenues are predicted to decline by $130,000 costing the city of Leadville a job in its fire department and a job in its street department.  The City also turned away a $1,000,000 state grant and a loan from the Department of Agriculture that would have allowed the hospital to stay open when it voted down the property tax increase.
A study published in the medical journal Health Affairs in August found that when emergency rooms close, the chances of death for those steered elsewhere rises by 5 percent. In cases of heart attack, stroke and sepsis, deaths rise by 15 percent. None of the hospitals studied, however, has Leadville's wintertime challenges of nearly 14 feet of snow annually on steep, twisting roads.
The Post notes that the decision would have increased the hospital's property tax from 5.48 mills where it has sat since 1988 to 16.44 mills, an increase on each $100,000 of value in a home from $43.62 a year to $87.26 a year, and for a business from $158.94 per $100,000 in property value to $476.84 in property value.

Needless to say, the voter's decision not to fund their county hospital doesn't seem very wise.  But, perhaps they are merely recognizing the inevitable.  The Post reports that this is not the only decline that Leadville is experiencing.

Leadville has lost about 40% of its restaurants in four years (seven out of seventeen or eighteen), and one of its two grocery stories, Alco, is going out of business, leaving only one Safeway outside the city limits.

"The landmark Tabor Opera House, built in 1889, the same year as the hospital, closed as a private enterprise in August.", although a non-profit coalition is trying to the raise the $5 million needed to restore it.  In the late 1800s when it was built, it was the second biggest city in the state (in 1880 the census reported 14,820 residents in its 1.1 square miles) and was supported by silver mining.

Most of its seven museums have closed, or dramatically reduced their hours.  Sales tax revenues are down too:
Leadville collected about $648,000 in sales taxes in the last fiscal year, compared with just over $754,000 the year before. Sales-tax collections fell from $352,196 in the first quarter of 2013 to $312,662 for the same period in 2014. Neighboring Buena Vista, with almost the same population, had more than twice the sales-tax revenue: $1.55 million last year, up from $1.48 million the year before, according to tax records.
These setbacks will no doubt make it even harder to attract new residents.

The town took its main hit in 1893, when Congress stopped buying silver to prop up the currency, and has been struggling direly since the Climax molybdenum mine closed in the early 1980s, and a series of marathons and ultra-marathons in the summer have become a mainstay of a local economy, already oriented towards tourism.  The reopening of the mine in 2008 with it starting production in 2010 was too little, too late to save the Leadville economy.

It is unclear from the Denver Post reporting why the last few years have seen such a decline.  A delayed impact from the financial crisis and housing bust that hit Colorado's mountain towns hard, could be a factor.  But, it is hard to point to any one thing that has happened since 2010 that had a major negative impact on the town.

The closing of the hospital, the opera house, and area businesses, and municipal layoffs will surely cause tax collections to fall further, the population of Leadville and Lake County to fall, declining property values, and more declines, although it is close enough to major resorts to continue to be a bedroom community for ski resort workers and a secondary tourism destination.

No comments: