Mike McKibbin

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October 31, 2012
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Open space and clean water: Good reasons for tax hikes?

As ballot measures go, the volume of one is almost drowned out by the silence of the other.Voters will decide two tax-related questions on Tuesday, and while our letters to the editor have included many comments on question 1A, the Ranchlands, River and Recreation Economy measure, we've yet to receive a single letter about 2A, Rifle's 3/4 of a cent sales and use tax increase. Not one. More on that a little later.1A asks Garfield County voters if they want to impose a 10-year, 1/4 of a cent sales tax increase on all purchases, except food and prescription drugs. The tax would raise approximately $2 million a year and cost the average county household $3.25 a month.Of the revenue, 75 percent would go to purchase conservation easements from willing farm and ranch owners, especially land with key wildlife habitat, access to rivers and trails, or open space buffers.The rest of the money, minus 5 percent for administrative costs, would go towards grants to the county's six municipalities and county government for purchases of lands for parks, trails and river access. Oversight would include a citizen's advisory board.The measure has been endorsed by a wide range of interest groups, most notably the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission and the Holy Cross Cattlemen's Association, representing two industries who have been increasingly at odds over land use. Backers have also said up to 60 percent of the tax hike would be paid by tourists and other visitors.Some of the arguments against the measure are that open space tax-related measures have been turned down by county voters in the past, the current economic conditions, and worries about "growing government." Other points made are that there are already similar open space preservation programs in place, and that two-thirds of the county is public land.Bottom line: Having a single, coordinated, countywide open space program, with a sunset on the tax, is best for Garfield County and future residents.Remember the turmoil earlier this year over Rifle's plans to build a new water plant? It was the talk of the town for several months. In September, our water rates increased by some 60 percent, on average. I'm sure that got many people's dander up, but apparently only within their own circles.I've been shocked we haven't received a single letter to the editor on 2A. There is no organized pro or con group on 2A. The city can't promote issues under state statutes. They did send out a few informational letters, which is allowed.I'm not sure what the public silence means in terms of the sales tax. Either people have already made up their minds, or they don't care. That's a frightening thought, isn't it? Something as important to a community as clean water and you don't care?At any rate, passage of 2A would raise an estimated $1.65 million a year. It would take affect in January and increase the city's sales and use tax rate from 3.5 cents to 4.25 cents. It would also end as soon as the city's debt service on the water plant loan is repaid.City Manager John Hier has recommended the city take two steps, if the tax hike is approved: Eliminate a second water rate increase planned for April 2013, and lower the recent increase, "so the combined revenue from the sales tax and new rates will generate only that revenue needed to pay the debt service and increased operation and maintenance cost on the new plant," Hier wrote in a memo to the city council.Due to the "excellent" loan rate received from the Colorado Water and Power Authority, Hier continued, "it may be possible to lower ... monthly base rates to $23 per month and significantly reduce the ... tier rates."Hier has also said that if 2A is defeated, there are very few other viable funding options to help ease the burden of even higher water rates.Bottom line: Some have linked the sales tax hike's passage to the promise of lower water rates as a kind of "black mail," which could be seen that way, although I'm sure it's not intended that way. At any rate, remembering that most of the tax hike is likely to be paid by visitors and the like, and the importance of clean water to everyone, passage of 2A is what's best for Rifle.

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The Post Independent Updated Oct 31, 2012 05:31PM Published Oct 31, 2012 05:30PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.