While the majority of Glenwood Springs City Council candidates support the ¾-cent street sales tax question being posed to voters in the April 2 municipal election, three are on record as opposing it.
At-large candidate Tony Hershey, Ward 4 candidate Paula Stepp, who is unopposed, and Ward 3 candidate Jennifer Vanian have all three stated their opposition to the proposed tax increase.
Ballot Issue A on the city ballot seeks a 3/4-cent increase in the city’s sales tax rate to fund $56 million in needed street rebuilding and repairs, along with underground utility upgrades, over the next decade.
Hershey has been the most vocal opponent of the proposal among the candidates, asserting that the city must tighten the belt on its spending habits. He says that spending often favors council wants instead of city needs.
Before asking voters to support any new tax, projects like the Seventh Street beautification should be heavily scrutinized, he says.
“We have to make streets a priority,” Hershey said. “Police and streets, those are the two things this government has to provide.
“If we have $65 million in revenues and $55 million in expenditures, that sounds like we have money to fix the streets,” he said in reference to figures pulled from the 2019 city budget.
Hershey said he was not insinuating that a $10 million surplus existed. Rather, he said he is just pointing out that the city was not facing a budget crisis.
He said he just wants to see more fiscal responsibility exhibited within the city’s financial parameters.
According to city officials, in 2019, the city’s general fund does have a $101,000 budget surplus forecasted.
And, a claim by Hershey that $2 million a year could be set aside from the general fund and used to issue bonds for the street work without raising taxes is questionable, because any bonding against general fund dollars would require voter approval.
A separate question before voters, Ballot Issue B, seeks authority for up to $16 million in bonding against the new sales tax revenues, as a way to fast-track the projects.
Hershey’s two opponents for the at-large seat, incumbent Jim Ingraham and challenger Erika Gibson, have both said they support the tax proposal as the best way to rebuild and fix city streets — several of which have been deemed as “failing” — and to bring the underground utilities up to par, and in the shortest amount of time.
They and other tax supporters have said that any amount of money that might be shaken loose from the current city budget each year would pale in comparison to the $56 million needed to do the infrastructure work without compromising other city projects.
“I have not heard any other reasonable solution put forth,” Ingraham said in an earlier question-and-answer interview with the candidates. “Doing nothing is not only unreasonable, it is an abdication of our fundamental government responsibility.
“Grousing about past decisions, about how competing priorities were decided in the past, might make some folks feel good. But it won’t fix the problem.”
Tax supporters, including current City Council members and appointed members of the city’s Financial Advisory Board, have pledged that the tax will go away when the work is completed. The proposal calls for all of the street work to be completed within 10 to 12 years.
“It simply is not possible to find enough money within existing revenues to fix our streets,” tax proponents claim on their campaign website. “To meet a $56 million street replacement and repair schedule would require diverting one-third of total revenues ($5.6 million each year for 10 years) and would decimate current levels of city service.”
QUESTION OF PRIORITIES
“We are going to have to make some choices that do not include fountains, festival streets and statues,” Hershey said, referring to some of the amenities associated with the Seventh Street project. “We have to make better choices. That is my bottom line.”
The anti-street-tax Committee for Responsible Taxation, led by former City Council member Ted Edmonds, agrees that the city’s street network needs serious attention.
However, it also says the city should divert special Acquisition and Improvement tax funds from other projects, such as the future South Bridge project and some of the downtown redevelopment efforts, to focus on street needs first.
“The Acquisition and Improvement Fund has bonding capacity sufficient to provide the funds to begin the reconstruction of our streets,” the opposing committee claims on its campaign website. “This would give the city time and experience to consider the proper taxation to continue the work.”
For now, though, a 3/4-cent increase to the city’s sales tax, making Glenwood’s sales tax rate one of the highest in the area at 9.35 percent, is too much to ask, opponents have said.
OTHER CANDIDATE CONCERNS
Hershey has vehemently opposed the street sales tax since formally announcing his candidacy in mid-January. That’s when City Council voted in favor of putting the tax initiative on the ballot.
Ward 4 candidate Paula Stepp had not taken a formal yes or no position on the ¾-cent street sales tax question, until the days leading up to the Imagine Glenwood forum on March 19, she said.
“We asked for a street maintenance tax in 2005, we were asked to renew the A&I fund in 2016, and I think the citizens have been pretty forthcoming on how taxes support the city,” Stepp said Wednesday. “But I am wondering what else we can do besides that.”
Stepp explained that her stance against the new street tax was not intended as a jab at the current City Council, but rather she says she wanted more questions answered and ideas generated before asking residents to support yet another tax.
“When we passed that maintenance street tax in 2005, what did we do before we got that ½-cent street tax, and how were we taking care of our maintenance, our snowplowing, and the other things that we needed to do with our streets?” inquired Stepp, who is running uncontested for the seat being vacated by Michael Gamba due to term limits.
“Was that part of the general fund, and can we be looking at that again? That is my first question,” she said.
Stepp, who ran unsuccessfully last year for Garfield County commissioner, also wanted a more robust conversation about the county’s role as it pertained to former county roads that were annexed into the city over the years.
“When I am told that we took over streets in annexation, and those streets were in disrepair, was there any agreement with the county [that it] would help [the city of Glenwood Springs] with the maintenance?” Stepp asked. “Where is the partnership with the county?”
While Stepp did not dispute the $56 million projected cost to fix the city’s streets, but she believes the proposed tax was rushed without looking at all possible alternatives first.
“If it doesn’t pass, then what is our next step? I want to see that, as well,” Stepp said.
Ward 3 candidate Jennifer Vanian, running against Charlie Willman and Ksana Oglesby for the council seat being vacated by term-limited Councilman Todd Leahy, has also recently come out against the street tax question.
Willman and Oglesby both support the tax measure, joining Ingraham and Gibson in saying it’s the best way to move forward on the street work as quickly as possible without cutting into other important projects.
Vanian, however, thought it was odd for the current council to spend taxpayer money on beautification projects, only to later ask constituents for additional money to rebuild and fix the city’s streets.
“You can see it with projects from Seventh Street … to Two Rivers Park,” Vanian stated. “Some of those projects should have the flourishing touches looked at again, and make sure they are in the best long-term interest, as fixing the streets certainly are.”
The other current City Council member who is running unopposed for re-election, Ward 1 representative Steve Davis, also sided with the council majority in favor of putting the tax question before voters.