Council struggles to find consensus on size, nature of transportation tax ballot issue

Dennis WebbPost Independent Staff

Editors note: This is a second in a two-part series on issues surrounding the citys plans for a transportation tax issue this fall.Five months before a transportation tax in Glenwood Springs, is due for a vote, City Council members have divergent ideas about how big it should be and what it should fund.The council agrees on at least one thing: that the city needs to pass some sort of tax for street maintenance and construction work.But any discussion beyond that point of consensus reveals some starkly different transportation priorities and concerns, not to mention philosophies regarding a bigger versus smaller tax.Two council members, Dan Richardson and Dave Merritt, would like to see a 0.1 percent increase in the citys sales tax to further fund the citys in-town bus service, which council cut back earlier this year because it was over budget.However, some major transportation projects remain on the citys radar screen, including a possible relocation of Highway 82, a south bridge project that would extend the Midland Avenue alternate route, and the direct connection of Eighth Street from downtown to Midland.Meanwhile, council member Joe ODonnell would like to see the city aim high and ask for a 1 percent tax to replace an expiring quarter-percent tax that now pays for almost all of the cost of maintaining and rebuilding city streets.ODonnell said he believes the city has no choice but to seek a significant tax increase to deal with the financial problems the council has inherited.We might not leave office as the most popular council but we at least can leave office as the council that left this city fiscally sound, he said recently at a work session on the transportation tax.But fellow council member Bruce Christensen said that if the measure fails, the expiration of the existing tax will mean that the streets are going to be full of potholes.He recommends only asking for what the city needs this year, and coming back later with a follow-up tax for other purposes.I think its too important to kind of play Russian roulette with it right now because were not going to be the same city a year from now that we are now if we dont get this tax renewed, he said.Council member Larry Beckwith and Mayor Larry Emery share Christensens fears about going for a big tax that seeks to address a variety of needs.Were not going to get anything done with everyone having their little shopping list, Beckwith said.But Marianne Virgili, a member of the Community on the Move political group that has lobbied to get other city taxes passed over the years, doesnt rule out going for a one-cent tax.We think we can do it. If it gives the community what they want, I think theyll pass a one-cent tax, she said.She noted that Roaring Fork School District won voter approval of an $86 million bond issue last year.Don Hooner Gillespie, a former council member, said he thinks the city doesnt need to seek a big tax because existing sales tax revenues will increase, especially after the Glenwood Meadows retail outlets open.Council member Chris McGovern takes issue with ODonnells belief that a large tax increase wouldnt cause shoppers and tourists to complain and go elsewhere.I stood behind a counter on Grand Avenue for 25 years and they do (complain). They say, How much is your sales tax, anyhow?The sales tax hits city residents as well. Beckwith suggested the city consider imposing a total sales tax of 5 percent, but rebating 3 percent back to residents. The citys tax is now 3.45 percent.Last fall, city voters narrowly rejected a proposal to replace the existing quarter-cent tax with a half-cent measure. It would have preserved funding for street maintenance. It also would have provided funding for one or more of the following: a south bridge over the Roaring Fork River past the far end of Midland Avenue, the Eighth Street connection to Midland, and planning, design, land acquisition and construction of projects leading to the relocation of Highway 82.Even as they rejected the measure, voters approved a related measure to let the city borrow money for the 82, south bridge and Eighth Street projects.Supporters said the tax measure was not worded clearly, and suffered from a lackluster campaign. They say some people misunderstood the measure to be an increase in the bus tax.Christensen said he worries that a proposal for an expanded bus tax this fall would be perceived as mostly benefiting south Glenwood, where bus service was cut.Weve got to have something that we can get behind thats good for the whole town, he said.But Merritt said its important to look at new ways of getting around the city, and not just new asphalt and concrete.One challenge is finding a tax measure that everyone on council can get behind. Last years measure failed despite unanimous council support, and some city officials say the chances of a tax question passing this fall would diminish if council is divided on the question.Based on a straw poll, city manager Jeff Hecksel found council agreement so far on a measure that would fund existing transportation debt, basic street maintenance, street reconstruction needs, traffic-calming projects such as creation of bike lanes, and short-term fixes for easing Highway 82 congestion. Those projects would require a tax measure of a half-percent.Meanwhile, city staff is recommending that an existing capital projects fund now being used for utility operations instead be used more for transportation purposes. The city is studying its water and sewer rates, and may consider rate increases to better cover the costs of those services.ODonnell fears a shift in the use of the capital projects fund would require a big hike in utility rates, but Hecksel said the transition in use could take place gradually.The transportation tax discussion is coming amid a larger city process of trying to improve city finances after years of slumping sales tax revenues, increasing city costs, and subsidizing some expenses through other operations such as the electric system and South Canyon landfill. Merritt said he would like to see the city seek a 0.1 percent sales tax dedicated to covering a relatively new but significant city expense operating the Community Center.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext.

Glenwood Springs city staff is recommending City Council seek a half-percent transportation sales tax, as it did last fall, and that street maintenance and reconstruction be made the top funding priority. The measure would generate nearly $1.5 million its first year.The recommended tax also would pay debt service on the $3.5 million cost of the Eighth Street extension to Midland Avenue, but council doesnt unanimously support placing that extension on the ballot. Staff sees the project as crucial to providing a more direct link between downtown and Glenwood Meadows.The measure also would help pay down debt for previous property acquisition along the Roaring Fork River rail corridor for possible Highway 82 relocation. Staff also recommends that the city dip into existing unappropriated funds for a Highway 82 corridor optimization study. Last falls measure would have enabled funding of a $3 million environmental impact statement relocating 82, but state officials have since recommended doing the optimization study first. That study would consider relocation and other alternatives for dealing with traffic congestion on 82, and their potential impacts, without doing detailed analysis of those impacts.Staff didnt recommend funding for the $12 million south bridge project connecting to Midland Avenues far end. At the request of U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, a House transportation bill would provide federal funds to help pay for the project. But the Senates transportation bill doesnt earmark funds for specific projects.The city also is weighing whether to seek funding for specific projects, or a more general tax. A measure may be easier to sell to voters with specific projects attached, but that would leave the city with less flexibility when it comes to changing circumstances, such as possible federal assistance with the south bridge project. City Council appears to be leaning toward a measure that would fund street construction, which could take in a wide array of projects now under consideration.

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