County help could prove lucrative to RFTA
GSPI News Editor
The Roaring Fork Transit Authority will make a pitch to Garfield County commissioners this morning to consider letting voters decide whether to help fund the agency through a sales tax.
Such a tax would apply only in unincorporated, or non-municipal, parts of the county. But a state Department of Revenue report suggests it could generate more revenue than a comparable tax in most towns in the county.
A breakdown of state sales tax collected in 2002 shows that while Glenwood Springs led the county in taxable sales, at $380 million, unincorporated Garfield County was the second-largest source of such sales, at $110 million.
Rifle (before the opening of its Super Wal-Mart) and Carbondale each had about $73 million in taxable sales, followed by New Castle at nearly $14 million, Silt at $11 million and Parachute at $10.8 million. Battlement Mesa is part of unincorporated Garfield County.
County commissioner John Martin has previously questioned whether unincorporated Garfield County has enough of a sales tax base to warrant joining and supporting RFTA.
“The municipalities have a sales tax base, but we have few businesses,” he said. “If there is no revenue source, how can we join RFTA?”
However, commissioners agreed to go ahead with looking into joining.
RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said he sees at least symbolic value in the county joining and supporting RFTA, whatever the size of its sales tax base. Only Glenwood Springs and Carbondale currently belong to RFTA and have voter-approved taxes for it. Rifle, Silt, New Castle and Parachute may be more inclined to let their voters decide on the issue if the county does, Blankenship believes.
“They really look to Garfield County, I think, on this issue to get a sense as to whether or not this is the right thing for them to do.”
As for what the financial implications of county membership in RFTA could mean, that’s been harder to determine. Assistant County Administrator Jess Smith said he doesn’t see breakdowns of current county sales tax collections on an unincorporated basis. Those collections are countywide.
Under state rural transit authority legislation, RTA tax votes can’t take place in any municipality without their permission. Glenwood Springs voters have approved a 0.4 percent transit tax, and Carbondale a 0.5 percent tax, of which 0.4 percent goes to RFTA.
Like county officials, RFTA isn’t sure how much of a tax base a similar levy would apply to in the county.
“We want to try to get a better handle on how much sales tax that would generate,” Blankenship said.
Although the state Department of Revenue breakdown may give some indication, taxable sales for state and county sales taxes may not be entirely the same. Also, Blankenship noted, automobile sales would be taxable based on where a person lives, not where a car is purchased, which also could impact taxable sales.
“The vagaries about the numbers are why we have to explore it a bit more,” he said.
Still, he believes a tax in unincorporated Garfield County could yield several times more than the $25,000 a year the county now contributes out of its general fund to RFTA. A tax also would create a more secure, dedicated source of transit funding and free up those county general funds for other purposes.
Under an intergovernmental agreement with the county, RFTA also could be permitted to collect a $10 vehicle registration fee in unincorporated areas, which could go to build park-and-ride facilities in those areas, Blankenship said.
“I think there’s a good nexus there between who’s paying it and who’s using the park-and-ride facilities,” he said.
If the county and RFTA come to terms on a plan for the county to join the authority, the agreement would be submitted to two public hearings. Then county commissioners would vote on whether to execute the agreement, pending ballot approval.
RFTA has faced financial difficulties in recent years due to the economic slowdown, and would welcome new sources of income. Blankenship said there have been no new discussions with downvalley communities about seeking transit votes after they previously rejected the idea.
“We want to have that discussion,” he said.
RFTA already has expanded its service downvalley as far as Rifle, and Blankenship said it will make sense to upgrade that service over the next decade, given the amount of development and gas drilling expected to take place in western Garfield County.
“Over time those communities are going to start experiencing more problems related to mobility and congestion and those types of things,” he said.
As downvalley communities grow, they may need to import labor, and RFTA can provide transit for these commuters, he said. Also, the same buses used to take workers upvalley can bring shoppers downvalley to places like the new Wal-Mart, he said.
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