Commissioners agree to put museum tax to voters
Garfield County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved putting a museum and cultural heritage property tax question on the November ballot, though some had serious doubts about the proposal’s chances with voters.
This proposed property tax question will be for a 0.45 mill increase, which advocates hope will generate $1 million annually.
This property tax proposal to support historical preservation is clearly a soft spot for commissioners, as all of them, usually ardent anti-tax conservatives, expressed support for the proposal in varying degrees.
Commissioner John Martin, who has not endorsed a tax increase in his 21 years on the board, enthusiastically supported the proposal.
Martin called himself the “biggest anti-government tax person” on the board of commissioners. “Twenty-one years sitting behind this desk, I’ve never supported an increase in taxes,” he said.
But Martin said he’d finally found one he could support, that unlike past tax increase questions, this is one that would benefit everyone in the county, and it has support from every community in the county.
Though each of them made comments in support of the tax question, the board did not formally endorse the proposal.
And commissioners had hard questions for its supporters in terms of the timing and structure of the proposal.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who said that he might vote for the tax increase in November, raised a number of issues about why it might be best to wait another year.
Getting this tax increase to pass will be especially difficult on the heels of a substantial increase for the school district, he said. Commissioner Mike Samson also mentioned that Grand River Hospital will have a tax question on the November ballot in the western half of the county.
Getting such a measure to pass takes significant community support, said Samson. “If you don’t have a poll saying about 65 percent of the community is in support, then your chances of being successful really go down,” he said.
Additionally, this isn’t an effort that could be picked back up soon if it fails.
“If this does fail, it will probably be the kiss of death for many years,” said Samson.
Jankovsky noted that, “I come out of the school of no new taxes, that’s what I believe in. And with that said, I also believe in the democratic process and following what the voters have to say.”
Samson and Jankovsky also took issue with the proposal because it creates an advisory board that would become part of the county, growing the local government. Commissioners had been pushing the advocates to structure it, rather, as a special district. A special district wouldn’t have to come before the commissioners to allocate the money and would operate autonomously.
Matt Annabel, a Mount Sopris Historical Society board member and advocate for the tax proposal, said becoming a special district is part of the longterm plan, but the advocates wanted to first stick with the county, as making the proposal for a special district would be a bigger ask of voters. Supporters also believe that the community will be more comfortable approving the tax increase if the commissioners oversee the board and spending from the new fund. Annabel, however, left the door open for returning to voters later to seek approval for forming such a special district.
The advisory board route also gives the historic societies the opportunity to leverage some county resources and experience, he said.
“Garfield County has a huge economic opportunity in heritage tourism,” said Annabel. Currently, the combined operating budgets of the seven Garfield County historical societies is about $250,000, and their combined part-time employees across the county equals one full-time equivalent employee. Most of them run only on volunteer time. With the kind of stable operational funding this museum tax could provide, each of these historical societies could pay at least one part-time employee.
“We’re frankly running out of time; we don’t know what 2019 is going to look like yet,” said Annabel.
“Recognition and preservation of our history and culture allows us to recognize and respect our spiritual and our emotional ties to the past and to each other,” said Dorothea Farris, another museum and historical society tax supporter with the Mount Sopris Historical Society.
In closing, commissioners urged these advocates to hit the ground running in what they expected to be an uphill battle.
“You have a very daunting task,” said Samson.
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The family of Rosie Ferrin has worked to clean up and make safe again the old schoolhouse in downtown New Castle. Ferrin died this summer and had owned the building that included classrooms turned into apartments for years.