Editorial: Let’s have a plan before we approve a history tax
When you cast your vote on Ballot Issue 1A to raise your property taxes, we think it would be wise to ask exactly what you’ll be getting for your money, even if it’s pocket change, as some supporters say.
This estimated $1 million a year would support seven Garfield County historical societies and museums, which seems like a nice enough idea.
But there’s no specific — or even general — plan for how the money would be spent or allocated among the societies, which stretch from Parachute to Carbondale.
Rob Anderson, president of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society, told the PI, “I think the first thing is to get the money, then we figure out the organization.”
Let’s imagine for a second that a group advocating for, oh, a detox center or, say, teen pregnancy prevention came before our fiscally squeaky tight county commissioners with this approach:
“We’d like $1 million or so a year for 10 years. We aren’t sure how we’d spend it, but we’d like you to put it on the ballot for us. Then we’d like you to collect the money and dole it out. OK?”
We’re pretty sure this wouldn’t fly, but for some reason, the county commissioners went along with exactly that.
The museums did not wait to set up a special taxing district of their own, as Commissioner Tom Jankovsky suggested, insisting that the need is so urgent that it had to happen this year.
That might be true in the case of the Glenwood Springs Railroad Museum, which faces a rent increase, but we don’t believe that is sufficient reason to rush through a new tax without any written goals or plan for how the money will be spent.
To illustrate the blurriness of the vision for this spending, Anderson told the PI that maybe the county doesn’t need seven historical societies. “Maybe if we had $1 million per year we could find a consolidated location,” he said.
But Matt Annabel, a member of Carbondale’s Mount Sopris Historical Society, said that waiting might cause one or more of the societies to fold, which he said would hamper the county’s ability to capitalize on “heritage tourism,” which supporters say can provide a return on investment.
Usually people advocating a new tax sing out of the same hymnal, but there’s no choir director here and no order of service. Different societies have different visions, and the commissioners, who would have to pick winners and losers, have provided no leadership.
We could join in a history chorus, were there some planned harmony. We like history — in fact, we initially advocated a community fundraising campaign to cover the $84,000 cost of a derringer that the Glenwood society thought was once Doc Holliday’s. It turned out that the society all but certainly was duped and that the story of the derringer was made up in 1968 by a gun dealer of iffy repute.
Historical society members, who still haven’t had the gun examined by a firearms expert, like to hold out the possibility that the derringer might somehow be authentic even though the amazing tale that it was with a Hotel Glenwood barkeep’s family for 80 years was never even whispered till the disreputable gun dealer suddenly spun the yarn. Sure.
Now this group wants tax money.
Actually more tax money.
The executive director’s salary and benefits are already paid by the city of Glenwood Springs, just as were the salary and benefits of the director for the now-destitute Glenwood Center for the Arts.
That arrangement — public money directly interwoven with a seemingly worthy local nonprofit, whose books are not subject to the Colorado Open Records Act and whose financial controls were so loose that auditors said they couldn’t tell what money might have been misspent — didn’t pan out so well.
So do we want to tax ourselves to give money to seven more nonprofits for 10 years?
Anderson said, “There isn’t going to be any money that isn’t well used.”
But if we are students of history — recent history — we’ll be wary of this vow. With no disparagement toward anyone involved with the historical societies now, we surely have learned that nonprofit oversight can be difficult. Can we count on the county, itself victimized three times by embezzlement in recent years, to ensure proper spending in seven nonprofits?
In a county where:
• Commissioners declined to spend even $235,000 to continue expanded western Garfield County bus service over the winter to help get constituents to work while cutting traffic on a dangerous stretch of Interstate 70 after demand was proven during the Grand Avenue bridge detour;
• The library district, despite rising demand, has laid off workers and shortened hours;
• There is no detox center despite widespread agreement, including from law enforcement and health providers, that one is needed;
• Commissioners have declined to participate in a Colorado program that reduced teen pregnancy and abortions by 50 percent from 2009-14, a program that improves lives, reduces the chances of teens being on welfare later in life and ultimately saves millions …
In this county, we are asked to pay a new tax maybe so every town in the county can hire a museum staffer (just maybe; it’s one idea) and the Glenwood Springs Railroad Museum can start sending $27,900 a year in corporate welfare to Union Pacific Railroad to keep the doors open on a little-visited, albeit cute museum.
We think the much wiser course would be to reject this proposal and for the county’s history supporters to return to the commissioners and voters with clear goals and an articulated plan to achieve them.
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