Garfield County voters tank museum tax |

Garfield County voters tank museum tax

Ryan Summerlin
Ilse Bahrke from Denver watches the train set at the Glenwood Springs Railroad Museum while waiting with her family for the eastbound Amtrak train during a visit last year.

Fears that some Garfield County’s historical societies may have to close and others would struggle were not enough to sway voters toward a property tax increase in Tuesday’s election.

Garfield County reported the final vote at 6,347 against the tax and 5,217 in favor.

The property tax was proposed to support seven historical societies that fear for their future without the stable revenue. A coalition of historical societies and museums approached the Garfield County commissioners in July to put the measure on the ballot. Each of the commissioners expressed support for the tax proposal, though they doubted its chances with tax-weary voters.

The county commissioners’ support, while only made in side comments rather than a formal endorsement by the board, was notable considering their usual stance on taxes. Commissioner John Martin, who’s been on the Board of County Commissioners for 20 years, had never before supported a tax increase. Commissioners also recommended that other jurisdictions considering asking for a tax increase, like the Garfield County Library District, watch the museum tax for an understanding of voters’ feelings on tax increases.

Rather than creating a new taxing district, which commissioners had preferred, the historical societies wanted to form an advisory board that would make recommendations, but leaving decisions about how that money would be spent to commissioners. The historical societies hoped that being linked to the county’s reputation would help sway Garfield County voters who are typically skeptical of tax increases.

Historical society leaders advocating for the tax proposal say their future is murky without the stable revenue it would have provided. They projected the property tax would have brought in about $1 million annually.

For several years the societies have been struggling, some surviving only off of donations from philanthropists. Matt Annabel, a board member of the Mount Sopris Historical Society, said that the funding sources of these societies is not sustainable.

The Glenwood Springs Railroad Museum appears to be in the most dire straights, as Union Pacific, the owner of its building, has pinned the museum’s future in the building to the passage of the museum tax proposal. Others, like the Mount Sopris Historical Society in Carbondale is operating month to month, unable to foresee how it will operate much further than that. Many of Garfield County’s museums cannot afford to have regular open hours, but are available upon request.

There was some talk about using the money to give each of the seven historical societies a full-time employee, whereas only two currently have part time staffers and the rest are operated by volunteers. But plans for how that money would be split later appeared vague. Rather than dividing the revenue evenly, an advisory board would prioritize which organizations’ projects were of the highest importance.

The historical societies’ tax would have started in 2018 and sunset in 2027. Residential property taxes would have increased by $3.24 per $100,000 of assessed property value, while commercial property would increase by $13.05 per $100,000.

Also hanging over the museum tax vote was the recent implosion of the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts, as it has lost its contract with the city and its building after hidden financial turmoil came to light. Advocates for the museum tax were hoping that a low voter turnout would work in their favor. And though only about 28 percent of registered voters submitted ballots, that did not pan out.

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