Hard to pin down tax

Dennis Webb
GSPI News Editor

Garfield County Human Services Commission members are revisiting the question of whether they are getting their fair share of a county sales tax approved in 1996.

The commission is inviting one of its former chairmen, Bruce Christensen, to speak at its next meeting about the history surrounding the tax. Recently elected county Commissioner Tresi Houpt also was to do some research on the question.

“It’s been a little controversial over the years,” said Christensen, executive director of Mountain Valley Developmental Services.

Said Julie Olson, executive director of the Advocate Safehouse Project, “I question if all the money that was voted for health and human services is being used for health and human services.”

Garfield County Commissioner Larry McCown, who was first elected to office the same year the tax measure was approved, said he would have to go back and look at the ballot question to see how he felt about the Human Service Commission’s concerns.

“I know there was a lot of discussion and concerns about how that money could be appropriated after that tax initiative passed,” he said.

He believes the money is being used appropriately.

In 1996, voters approved a three-quarter-cent sales tax. Half was for county road and bridges, and a quarter for an emergency communications system. The rest was to be divided equally between public safety and public health/human services, according to a Glenwood Post story Nov. 6, 1996, on the election results.

Christensen said the human service money was sought because the county, tight on money, had stopped providing money to agencies providing those services.

“After it passed they suddenly decided that things like Extension and the fairgrounds were part of the human services and took a whole bunch of money out of that pot,” he said.

McCown said money currently goes to the 4-H program, which is administered through the Cooperative Extension Service. He said he believes fair funding is now paid for out of the county’s general fund.

McCown said the money spent on 4-H is a good investment in a human service organization.

“The 4-H program is working effectively as a human services program,” he said. “Those children involved in 4-H, you don’t seem to see them cropping up in trouble anywhere else.”

Olson doesn’t dispute the value of programs such as 4-H and the fair. She said they simply weren’t part of the sales tax proposal, which human service agencies worked hard to help get passed.

“They were not in the mix when we were talking about it,” she said.

The 4-H program gets about $50,000 a year from the tax, said Olson. By comparison, the safehouse gets $9,000.

She said human service agencies have to go through an annual review process, competing for about $200,000 in funding. The fair and 4-H are funded without going through that review, tapping into additional sales tax funds beyond the $200,000, she said.

“What was frustrating is that it was deemed by the county commissioners at that time that there were several organizations that didn’t even have to request the funds, they just got the funds,” she said.

“I’m not saying that they’re not worthy, because I think they are, but why aren’t they going through the same process that we went through?”

McCown said his understanding is that 4-H isn’t supposed to be subject to the same fiscal process applied to other human service agencies.

Olson said the Human Services Commission decided that if Cooperative Extension provides a human service, it should be invited to the commission’s meetings. But it rarely has had a representative attend, she said.

She said the question of the tax’s distribution has become increasingly important because there are more human service agencies today, competing for the same pool of money.

Said Christensen, “If real human service agencies were getting what voters thought would happen, there probably would be enough dollars there for it.”

He said another frustration is that the county has been increasing funding for agencies such as Public Health, but then increasing rent, so the money ends up back in the county’s general fund.

Christensen said there has been talk of trying to create a special taxing district from Aspen through Garfield County to fund human services through a property tax. It would be overseen by an elected board whose only interest would be human services.

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

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