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Basalt Issue 3A: Setting property tax rate gains widespread support

Basalt officials were finally breathing easy Tuesday night after a year of budget uncertainty.

The town government’s request to re-establish a property tax mill levy was ahead by a comfortable 191-vote margin with a handful of votes remaining to count. As of 10:15 p.m., there were 594 votes in favor of the mill levy and 345 against. That’s a margin of 63% to 37%.

The vote on the property tax rate was required after town staff discovered in fall 2018 that the government had been violating the Colorado Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights for more than a decade by raising the property tax rate without voter approval. The council responded by approving $2.1 million in refunds for four years of overcharges and placing a question on the ballot to re-establish the tax rate.

“I think we’ve continued to forge ahead to solve the problem,” Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said Tuesday night after the voting trend was clear. “With that came earning the trust from their constituency.”

Issue 3A asked for permission to set the property tax rate at 5.957 mills, the same as last year. Without that approval, Basalt would have been forced to drop to a mill levy of 2.562 — the lowest level it has been since the Colorado Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights was approved in 1992.

The lower mill levy would have forced Basalt to slash about $700,000 from its budget for 2020 and future years.

“The reality is you can slash $700,000 from your budget and you might not feel it in year one,” Mahoney said. But the cumulative effect of the budget cuts would eventually mean infrastructure repairs wouldn’t be made as frequently, vehicles wouldn’t be replaced and special projects couldn’t be pursued, he said.

Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said she felt many voters understood the implications, despite the complexity of the issue. It was a low-key campaign, but when she went door-to-door, it seemed like voters were informed, she said.

Since the TABOR violation was discovered, the town government took steps to beef up its financial oversight. It added citizen watchdogs to its financial advisory board. It changed budget approval procedures so increase transparency of the mill levy.

“I think the town has really ramped up their game on transparency and financial reporting,” Whitsitt said.

She said the results were a personal relief as well. Whitsitt must leave office in April due to term limits. She didn’t want to leave office with the town facing a dire financial situation.

“It’s great to go out on a high note,” she said.

Mahoney said voter approval of the ballot question means the town can “stay on track” with its strategic plan, which includes everything from regular maintenance of roads and sidewalks to efforts to add affordable housing and assist with affordable daycare.

The ballot measure also gives future town council flexibility in raising and lowering the property tax rate — as long as it stays under 5.957 mills. Any increase above that level requires voter approval.

Despite the stakes, the election didn’t entice many Basalt residents to vote. As of deadline time Tuesday night, there were 939 ballots cast with a small amount remaining to be counted. There are about 2,200 registered voters, so the turnout was about 42 percent.

There were 844 votes cast in the last municipal election in April 2018.

The measure was supported by a comfortable margin in both Eagle and Pitkin counties. Basalt is divided among the two.

In the Eagle County portion of Basalt, the vote was 429 in favor and 267 against as of 10:15 p.m. The margin was 165 in favor and 78 against in the Pitkin County portion of Basalt.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Proposition DD still too close to call

After the first round of votes were tallied Tuesday, it’s still too soon to tell whether Colorado voters have passed a measure that will use taxes from sports betting to fund projects outlined in the Colorado Water Plan.

As of 8:30 p.m., unofficial results showed 49.74 percent of Colorado voters for Proposition DD and 50.26 percent against it.

In Pitkin and Eagle counties, the measure passed with 58 percent of voters in each county supporting the measure.

Voters in Garfield County rejected Proposition DD with 53 percent of voters against it.

If Proposition DD passes, the state will be authorized to collect a 10 percent tax up to $29 million (but probably closer to $15 million) a year from casino’s sports-betting proceeds. The money would go toward funding projects that align with the goals outlined in the water plan, as well as toward meeting interstate obligations such as the Colorado River Compact.

The plan, outlined in a 567-page policy document, does not prescribe or endorse specific projects, but, instead, sets Colorado’s water values, goals and measurable objectives. According to the water plan, there is an estimated funding gap of $100 million per year over 30 years, but Colorado Water Conservation Board officials have said that number is an estimate and not precise.

Some of the projects outlined in the water plan stand in opposition to one another — for example stream restoration projects with an emphasis on environmental health and building or expanding dams and reservoirs that would divert and impound more Colorado River water. Proposition DD funding could go toward any of these.

The funds would be administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a statewide agency charged with managing Colorado’s water supply.

In addition to doling out money from Proposition DD in the form of water-plan grants, the revenue could also be spent to ensure compliance with interstate compacts and to pay water users for temporary and voluntary reductions in consumptive use. That could mean a demand management program — the feasibility of which the state is currently studying — in which agricultural water users would be paid to leave more water in the river.

The measure had received broad support from environmental organizations, agriculture interests, water-conservation districts and even Aspen Skiing Company.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.

Garfield County library tax appears headed toward approval

A $4 million property tax increase for the Garfield County Library District appeared to have earned voter approval by a slim margin in final vote tallies Tuesday night.

With roughly 10,720 ballots counted as of 10 p.m., Question 6A was passing 5,471 votes, or a little more than 51.5% in favor, to 5,138 opposed.

The proposed 1.5 mill levy increase to fund the six-branch countywide library system would generate between $3.7 million and $4 million annually to allow libraries to restore hours and renew services that were cut two years ago.

“It’s close, but it does show that people trust us and value us as a community resource,” Garfield Libraries Executive Director Brett Lear said.

Should the measure go on to pass, “It’s a brand new day for our libraries, and allows us to not only restore but enhance services. I’m very excited about that,” Lear said.

According to the Garfield County Assessor’s Office, the additional tax is expected to cost a residential property owner in Garfield County an extra $10.80 per $100,000 of assessed value. A commercial property owner would pay an extra $43.50 per $100,000 of assessed value.

As planned, roughly 45% of the new yearly revenue is to be budgeted for library staff in an effort to expand library hours back to pre-2017 levels, and eventually add Sunday hours.

According to Lear, the plan is to hire 28 positions over the next 12-18 months. Most of those would be front-line positions at individual libraries, while a handful would be districtwide support positions.

Total revenues for the district are expected to increase from just over $5.5 million to about $9.2 million with the new levy.

In addition to the staffing increases, the new revenues would include:

  • $763,600 extra for general library services, programming and materials;
  • $531,800 more for facility maintenance;
  • $402,822 for equipment overhead;
  • $135,600 additional for professional and technical services;
  • $23,472 for advertising and marketing.

The library district is currently funded by a portion of the county’s sales tax and a dedicated property tax mill levy approved by voters in the mid-2000s.

Over that past decade, sales taxes have dwindled in part because of a court-ordered refund and subsequent withholding of sales tax distributions to the county. That case involved oil and gas companies that were determined to have been erroneously assessed sales tax on certain hydraulic fracturing materials.

Compounding the drop in revenue has been a decline in oil and gas production in general in Garfield County, which has impacted the library district and other property tax-dependent entities.

jstroud@postindependent.com

Much of new Garfield County Library tax funds contained in 6A would go to staffing

A big reason for the Garfield County Library tax question that’s before voters this fall is to bring the six branch libraries back up to staffing levels necessary to support pre-2017 library hours and programs.

As a result, should Issue 6A pass in the Nov. 5 mail ballot election, roughly 45% of the estimated $3.7 million to $4 million in new yearly revenue from a proposed 1.5 mill levy increase is budgeted for library staff.

According to Garfield Libraries Executive Director Brett Lear, the plan is to hire 28 positions over the next 12-18 months.

Most of those positions would be front-line library workers needed to reinstate morning, evening and weekend library hours that were cut two years ago, plus the addition of Sunday hours, he said.

“It’s mostly for bringing back those hours, and hiring back the staff that we lost,” Lear said.

A few of the positions that would be reinstated involve districtwide support staff. And, at least one new position would be created to plan educational classes and events that would also be reinstated under the tax plan, Lear said.

Recently, the district prepared two budget scenarios for 2020 — one representing the status quo funding under the existing 1 mill levy, and the other with the additional 1.5 mills.

If voters approve the measure, total revenues for the district would be expected to increase from just over $5.5 million to about $9.2 million.

On the spending side, much of that additional revenue would be reflected in wages and benefits. It would jump from about $2.15 million under current funding levels to a little over $3.9 million with the new tax.

It’s the second time in as many years that the library district has gone to voters with a tax-related question. Last year, voters agreed to let the district keep and spend all tax dollars generated by the existing 1 mill levy and a portion of the county’s sales tax beyond state spending limits.

This year, the ask is for an extra tax levy to get the district back on track after multiple years of declining revenues. 

Those declines have been due in part to the downturn in oil and gas production in Garfield County, and what had been several years of sales tax withholding from the state tied to reimbursements for oil and gas companies under a court order.

In addition to the staffing increases, the new revenues would include:

  • $763,600 extra for general library services, programming and materials;
  • $531,800 more for facility maintenance;
  • $402,822 for equipment overhead;
  • $135,600 additional for professional and technical services;
  • $23,472 for advertising and marketing.

Kevin Hettler, chief financial officer for the library district, said the new mill levy would put the district back on track with funding levels from a decade ago, plus inflation.

The cost of services continues to go up every year, Hettler noted, adding that passage of 6A would place revenue at the CPI index tracking out from 2009.

Facility funds would be used to catch up with some deferred maintenance that’s piled up in recent years, Lear said, including boiler and HVAC systems and building roofs.

“If 6A passes, we would be able to create a capital line item to address those things,” he said.

Of the reinstated staff positions, Lear said the larger branches, Glenwood Springs and Rifle, would likely be getting five or six new employees. The smaller branches – Carbondale, New Castle, Silt and Parachute – would be getting three or four new staffers.

With the tight labor market, reinstatement of library hours will largely depend on hiring, Lear added.

“It does take a good deal of time to recruit and hire those folks, so we may be looking at early summer, maybe sooner,” he said. 

However, the addition of Sunday hours may not be possible until early 2021, he said.

jstroud@postindependent.com

Water, education and transportation all wrapped up into two state ballot questions before voters

After facing one of the most loaded Colorado ballots in recent memory last year — when voters were asked to consider 13 statewide ballot questions — voters this fall will decide just two state ballot measures.

But the intent has a familiar ring to it, as funding from at least one of the measures on the Nov. 5 statewide ballot is proposed to be directed toward education and transportation.

Besides a handful of local questions and elections for area school board and Colorado Mountain College trustee seats, two measures were referred by the Colorado Legislature — Propositions CC and DD.

Keep and spend

Prop CC asks whether the state government should be allowed to retain revenue above the spending cap mandated in the state constitution under the so-called Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) Amendment that was passed in 1992. 

Rather than being refunded to taxpayers, as spelled out under TABOR, the extra money — estimated to be $264.3 million in 2020 — would be used to bolster funding for state transportation projects and both K-12 and higher education.

Supporters, including several education organizations across the state, say Prop CC is a way to provide more funding for K-12 education, including better teacher pay, short of a dedicated new tax. 

Such a tax measure (Amendment 73) failed in the 2018 election. And, the same was true for two ballot measures aimed at transportation (Props 109 and 110), which also were turned down by voters last year. 

Supporters see this year’s Prop CC as a way to keep and spend state tax revenue that’s already collected, without raising taxes. The vast majority of the state’s municipalities, counties and school districts have done this through local “de-Brucing” measures — a reference to TABOR author and anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce.

“If passed, the money from Prop CC would help attract and retain the best teachers for our K-12 schools … reduce traffic congestion and repair unsafe bridges … and make community colleges more accessible and affordable,” according to the pro-Prop CC campaign website.

According to the campaign, in its first year, Prop CC would direct an estimated $88.1 million to state, county and local transportation projects, $88.1 million to higher education and $88.1 million to public schools for “non-recurring” expenses like buying books or computers, or creating incentives to retain and attract quality teachers.

Under Prop CC, the state’s auditor would be required to publish a yearly financial audit of money kept and spent as a result of Proposition CC, according to the pro-Prop CC campaign. 

However, opponents — including the conservative political action group Colorado Rising Action — say Prop CC is just what supporters say it isn’t — a tax increase.

“The government is asking to keep and spend tax money that would otherwise be returned to Coloradans, making this a tax increase,” according to the “No on CC” website.

“… Without the revenue cap in place, the state government would be able to spend more of the tax dollars it collects in the future. And, even though taxpayers aren’t technically paying the government more than the current rate, Coloradans would be left with less money in their wallets, because they wouldn’t get any of it back the next time the state surpasses the revenue cap.”

Betting for water resources

The other statewide question before voters, Proposition DD, would authorize sports betting in Colorado casino towns and impose a 10% tax on those proceeds.

The funds generated are to be used to fund the implementation of the state’s water plan. A portion would also go to fund expenses related to the administration and regulation of sports betting.

Locally, the Colorado River District Board of Directors has endorsed Prop DD, saying the estimated $10 million to $15 million it could generate annually is a way to at least begin to fund the water demand management program contained in the Colorado Water Plan. 

That plan, approved under Gov. John Hickenlooper, was a multi-year effort bringing together stakeholders from all of the state’s river basins, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and both Western Slope and Front Range water interests to come up with a management plan for the state’s water resources.

The effort was also aimed at avoiding a potential Colorado River Compact call from downstream states.

Noting a funding gap of $100 million per year over 30 years to fund the plan, Prop DD “will only be a start toward fully funding Colorado’s water supply needs …,” according to the River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs but represents 15 western Colorado counties.

“… It is the expectation of this board that the General Assembly will fund the additional needs from the General Fund,” the River District board emphasized in its resolution of support for the measure.

According to the pro-Prop DD campaign group, “Yes on DD,” the proposal is similar to the creation of the Colorado Lottery 30 years ago, proceeds from which have gone to fund numerous outdoor recreation projects across the state through the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) program.

“Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2060 and, at current usage rates, our water supply will not keep up with that growth,” according to the campaign. “With these pressures mounting, it is critical that we conserve and protect our water resources to ensure that there is enough water for everyone.”

Opposing Prop DD, however, are some of the same environmental groups that also have been critical of the Water Plan, saying it opens the door for new dam projects around the state and frees up too much water for oil and gas development.

One such group is Coloradans for Climate Justice, headed by longtime river enthusiast and state water resource activist Gary Wockner.

“It would basically be a slush fund for the legislature to spend on whatever they want to spend on,” Wockner says on the Climate Justice Facebook page. “And it could include … new river-destroying dams and diversions on our state’s already severely depleted rivers.”

Ballots for the Nov. 5 election have been sent by mail to all registered voters in Garfield County and across the state, and should be in hand this week. 

Voters can return ballots to the County Clerk’s Office by mail up until about a week before the election, or in person at one of the many drop-off locations throughout Garfield County until 7 p.m. on Election Day.

More 2019 election information, including a link to Colorado’s “Blue Book” ballot information booklet, at the Garfield County Clerk and Recorder’s Election Central webpage.

Ballot language for state questions

Proposition CC

Without raising taxes and to better fund public schools, higher education, and roads, bridges, and transit, within a balanced budget, may the state keep and spend all the revenue it annually collects after June 30, 2019, but is not currently allowed to keep and spend under Colorado law, with an annual independent audit to show how the retained revenues are spent?

Proposition DD

Shall state taxes be increased by twenty-nine million dollars annually to fund state water projects and commitments and to pay for the regulation of sports betting through licensed casinos by authorizing a tax on sports betting of ten percent of net sports betting proceeds, and to impose the tax on persons licensed to conduct sports betting?

jstroud@postindependent.com

Library tax supporters ramp up campaign as ballots go out this week

Backers of a mill levy proposal to restore former funding levels to run the six-branch Garfield County Libraries system are, in essence, seeking a return to normal and stability going forward.

The proposed 1.5 mill levy increase — before county voters this fall as Question 6A — would generate $4 million annually to make up what’s been a $2 million annual drop in revenue since 2015, and a downward slide that’s been going on for the past decade.

It would also provide a more stable source of funding to help ride out the occasional ebbs and flows in existing funding, backers say.

If approved in the Nov. 5 mail ballot election, the new tax would be used to restore library hours to previous levels, including earlier weekday morning and Sunday hours, keep facilities well-maintained, retain and boost staff, and bolster the purchase of new library materials, according to supporters.

Ballots for the fall election are to be mailed to registered voters at the end of this week, and are to be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 5.

According to the Garfield County Assessor’s Office, the additional tax would cost a residential property owner in Garfield County an extra $10.80 per $100,000 of assessed value. And, a commercial property owner would pay an extra $43.50 per $100,000 of assessed value.

Children, parents and instructors at a Story Art program at the Glenwood Springs Library on Oct. 1.
John Stroud/Post Independent

No organized opposition has formed related to the library proposal, but Garfield County Libraries Executive Director Brett Lear knows any tax proposal is a tough sell.

That’s why he and members of the tax campaign committee have been out drumming up endorsements and making the case to individual voters across the county.

“Just with the cuts in hours, that has limited the community’s access to the libraries,” Lear said. “A lot of our users have service jobs in Aspen, and these expanded hours would bring back some of that access to libraries to a lot of families.

“And, Sundays are when families can go to the library together,” he said.

The library district is currently funded by a portion of the county’s sales tax and a dedicated property tax mill levy.

Over that past decade, sales taxes have dwindled in part because of a court-ordered refund and subsequent withholding of sales tax distributions to the county. The case involved oil and gas companies that were determined to have been erroneously assessed sales tax on certain hydraulic fracturing materials.

Compounding the drop in revenue was a decline in oil and gas production in general in Garfield County, which has impacted the library district and other property tax-dependent entities.

Bottom line, revenues are not keeping up with the costs of programs and services offered by the six branch libraries in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute, Lear said.

The library district’s current budget is $1.9 million less than it was 10 years ago, and cuts in recent years have reduced staffing levels, as well as morning, evening and weekend library hours.

“We also have 100 fewer educational classes and events for children each year than we did just a few years ago,” he said.

Recently, the library district obtained endorsements from two local school district boards, Garfield Re-2 and Roaring Fork Re-1.

Other organizations that have signed on in support, according to the tax campaign, include the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, Literacy Outreach, Raising a Reader Aspen to Parachute, and the Rifle Regional Economic Development Corporation.

Garfield County Libraries Tax Proposal

If passed by voters, the proposed 1.5 mill levy would generate $4 million annually to:

• Retain qualified staff

• Maintain access to educational classes and events for children, including early literacy and homework help

• Provide senior classes and events

• Keep library buildings safe and well-maintained

• Purchase more books, including large-print for seniors

• Restore hours to include mornings, after-school times and weekends

• Improve technology to provide access to computers and internet for those who don’t have it

Source: Vote Yes on 6A for Garfield County Libraries

Kids and parents sit in a circle and listen to a story during the weekly storytime at the Glenwood Springs Library on Tuesday morning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Mill levy increase to be discussed by library board

Since switching to reduced hours and cutting back on staff in December 2016, and again a few months later, officials with the Garfield County Library District believe it may be time to return what was lost to the branches across the district. 

Executive Director Brett Lear said the library board will be deciding at next month’s meeting on whether to pursue a mill levy increase on the November ballot. He said the board will discuss the district finances and whether a mill levy increase would be the best solution to some of the problems the district is facing. In the next month, if it moves forward, the board will vote on whether to put the mill levy increase on the November ballot. 

“As of now, if we were to put it on the ballot,” he said, 1.5 mills would be increase, “generating around $4 million annually with current projections.”

Though the mill levy increase would bring more revenue for the district and help it from going into the red going forward, one of the main objectives would be to get back some of the hours the district lost several years ago. 

The December 2016 hour change resulted in a 7% decrease in hours open and a staffing reduction of 25%, according to the Garfield County Libraries. 

Nine months later the library cut hours again with all the libraries now open no earlier than 11 a.m.

Lear said a survey sent to residents asking about the library services they valued most showed just how disappointed some were with lack of morning availability and overall library hour reduction. 

“58 percent said they would support a mill levy tax increase,” he said. 

The library district may not have the same hours or staff as it used to, but, according to Lear, it remains an important resource for the community. 

The district sees around 424,000 visitors annually with near universal membership for residents across the valley no matter what town they live in. 

The funds from a mill levy increase could be used to retain staff and keep the libraries open longer, provide senior classes and educational classes and events for students especially during the summer, purchase new materials, improve technology and more, according to the district. 

The mill levy increase would also come with a citizens’ oversight committee and public view of expenditures to ensure that funds are spent efficiently.

“We want to make sure our residents have healthy libraries and a great community resource for future generations,” Lear said. 

Library district operations benefit from a mix of revenues, including a dedicated 0.25 percent portion of the county’s 1-cent sales tax, and a 1-mill property levy approved by county voters 10 years ago.

The property tax was intended to pay for new library facilities in each of the county’s six municipalities, from Carbondale to Parachute. 

azorn@citizentelegram.com

Editor’s note: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story said that 68 percent of survey respondents said they would support a mill levy tax increase. 58 percent of survey respondents said they would support a mill levy tax increase.

Glenwood Springs council candidates opposed to street tax question spending

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.

mabennett@postindependent.com

Street tax looms over Glenwood At-Large council debate

Three candidates for the At-Large City Council seat presented their visions for Glenwood Springs and discussed a wide range of issues Monday. But the most prevalent topic to arise at the Issues and Answers forum was the proposed street tax and bond referendum also on the April 2 ballot.

Voters throughout the city elect the At-Large councilor seats. Questions at the forum, sponsored by the Glenwood Springs Chamber and Resort Association, KMTS and the Post Independent, touched on many specific issues, including the Glenwood Springs Mall, the city airport, South Canyon Landfill, short-term vacation rentals, and encouraging a diverse economy.

The candidates on the ballot, Jim Ingraham, the incumbent appointed to the seat in 2018, local water attorney Erika Gibson, and prosecuting attorney Tony Hershey, each had two-minute opening and closing statements, and one minute to answer each posed questions.

Ingraham quoted Winston Churchill in his opening statement: “Politics isn’t a game, it is earnest business.” He said he is not politically ambitious, but decided to run for reelection on the advice of constituents who said he was “a good listener, thoughtful, communicated well.”

Gibson, who moved to Glenwood Springs three years ago, said her vision is to make the city more viable for the next generation.

“As much as we want to be in Glenwood, I am currently experiencing how hard it is to live here. It’s not just affordable rentals; it is trying to find a place to start your first home. I want affordability to be a more consistent focus for City Council,” Gibson said.

As the only candidate for City Council opposed to the street tax, Hershey made his position clear.

“I think this City Council has abdicated its responsibility,” in not keeping up with street maintenance, which will now cost $56 million, Hershey said.

Hershey said he had identified $2 million in the current budget that could be used immediately to repair streets without a sales tax.

“If I sound like a broken record, it’s because I am. If we raise our sales tax, people are going to go shopping in Rifle, in Eagle, in Grand Junction, even in Aspen,” Hershey said in answer to one of the questions.

If passed, the sales tax would push the city’s tax rate to 9.35 percent, the highest in the region besides Snowmass Village, which has a rate of 10.4 percent. The sales tax rate at Glenwood Meadows, which has an extra 1.5 percent public improvements fee, would jump to more than 10.9 percent, at least until 2025 when the PIF is set to expire.

Hershey offered that money from the Seventh Street project and funds from other parts of the budget (he mentioned that an intern was being paid who didn’t need to be) could be used to bond for the street restoration without a tax.

As a current member of the council, Ingraham defended the work of the city in the past year, noting the completion of the Grand Avenue Bridge, restoration started on 27th Street, Seventh Street beautification, Veltus Park improvements, the Hanging Lake shuttle, and a plan for fixing the infrastructure.

Regarding the Seventh Street project, “it was worthwhile to spend a couple extra million to make it a very nice, attractive space,” Ingraham said.

“A lot of good things have been accomplished in the last year by [the council] working together a coming up with practical solutions,” Ingraham said.

“What could this council do much better? Communicating with its citizens,” he said.

Gibson mostly agreed with Ingraham that the sales tax was the only solution to fix the roads, and that Seventh Street needed the money to be activated, particularly after the bridge reconstruction. But she also noted that the cost of the project and some of the processes concerned citizens.

“I think it’s now time to focus our efforts elsewhere,” she said.

On other issues, there was far less disagreement. Hershey did criticize the Urban Renewal Authority being formed to encompass the West Glenwood mall property as a “bailout” of a private business owner who made a bad decision.

Ingraham said it was not about a bailout, but an act to fix a blighted area. Gibson said what started out as a contract issue “turned into a problem for our community,” and now the area has real potential.

tphippen@postindependent.com

(Editor’s note: This story has been revised from the print version to more accurately reflect the exact sales tax rates that are being proposed.)

Glenwood street tax debate explores both sides of the road

Former Glenwood Springs city councilman Ted Edmonds and current City Councilor Jonathan Godes sparred over the proposed ¾-cent streets sales tax question at Monday night’s Issues and Answers Forum.

Edmonds, representing the Committee for Responsible Taxation, and Godes, on behalf of the Campaign to Fix Our Streets Now, fielded questions pertaining to the ramifications should the tax proposal fail, the potential impacts of an overall sales tax rate of 9.35 percent should it pass, and the tax’s specific ballot language.

KMTS News Director Ron Milhorn, who served as the forum’s moderator, asked each campaign representative what would happen should the voters reject the sales tax and how a followup solution might look.

“Construction costs go up 5 percent every year, the roads will continue to degrade, and we are not going to have a $56 million dollar ask, we will have a $65 million dollar ask,” Godes answered.

Godes said a possible alternative, should the ¾-cent sales tax not pass, may come in the form of a property tax. But he called that scenario problematic, citing that 100 percent of the burden would then fall on Glenwood’s property owners.

Reiterating what the Fix Our Streets Now campaign has stated, Godes said that with a new sales tax, 73 percent would be paid for by tourists and visitors, whereas 27 percent would get funded by city residents, according to Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association estimations.

“It is the definition of having the tourists pay for our community improvements,” Godes said.

Edmonds pushed back saying that, should the new sales tax pass, Glenwood would then have the second-highest overall sales tax rate in the Roaring Fork Valley.

He was particularly concerned as to what such an increase would mean for retail businesses at Glenwood Meadows, which generates a healthy amount of sales tax and has an additional public improvement fee (PIF) in place.

“I think it gets a little more intense when you get up around 11 percent for a new refrigerator, stove, and some of those larger items,” Edmonds said of shopping in stores such as Lowe’s. “If you really believe that having our sales tax be higher than any of our neighbors is not going to impact the business community in this town … I am going to have to disagree.”

A ¾-cent increase would bring Glenwood’s total sales tax rate to 9.35 percent. It would be the second-highest rate in the Roaring Fork Valley, behind only that of Snowmass Village’s rate of 10.4 percent.

Godes countered, however, that in the rest of the city where a PIF is not instituted, if one were to purchase a $10 sub and chips, they would pay 7.5 extra cents.

“And, you know what I get to do, I get to drive home on roads and not bottom out, not wreck my front end suspension … that is the impact that I am focused on, not the extra seven and a half cents for the sub,” Godes said.

Milhorn also inquired about the fact that a 0.75 percent tax that collects $4.5 million annually over 20 years equals $90 million, as spelled out in the ballot question, whereas replacing the city’s streets and their underlying utility infrastructure has an estimated cost of $56 million.

That language is required by the state’s TABOR law, which requires tax measures to estimate the most the tax could generate over 10 years, Godes explained. The tax is only meant to generate what’s needed for the identified streets projects, which is $56 million, he said.

Godes also cited “off-ramps in the next 10 years,” when both the existing PIF and ½-cent street tax currently in place, unless renewed, would go away in 2025 and 2026, respectively.

“The ultimate off ramp is, when it’s done in 10 years it expires. It is done. It is automatically repealed by TABOR law,” Godes said.

Edmonds countered that the ballot language was not specific and subject to different legal interpretations. As a result, it may land the city in a lawsuit down the road, he said.

“It does leave the door open for a future council, none of whom are on council now, to make decisions about this,” Edmonds said. “I know Jonathan disagrees, but this is one of those things where I say the lawyers are eventually going to have to deal with that.”

mabennett@postindependent.com