County to seek tax hike for roads, water
August 20, 2008
ASPEN ” Pitkin County will ask voters two tax questions on the Nov. 4 general election, including one to raise property taxes to provide money to fix the county’s aging and ailing roads system.
The other question calls for a slight sales taxes increase to provide money to fight to preserve water for uses within the Roaring Fork River drainage, the county commissioners decided at a work session Tuesday in Aspen.
The road infrastructure will be in dire disrepair within seven to 10 years, county officials said.
But county board chair Jack Hafield opposed the road tax question.
“I think the timing is wrong,” he said, noting that with the national economy in a downturn and the possibility of a similar slump locally, this year would be a bad time to ask for a tax increase. He didn’t say how he felt about the water fund question.
The other commissioners all indicated support for putting both questions on the ballot and letting voters decide.
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A formal vote on the questions will come at the Aug. 27 regular meeting, followed by a public hearing at a special meeting Sept. 2, in order to meet the state’s Sept. 5 deadline for ballot questions.
It took nearly an hour of debate for the commissioners to conclude that the road tax question should call for the lower of two possible tax rates, and that the question should not call for a “de-Brucing” of the enabling legislation.
A county consultant’s recent survey showed that while 57 percent of county residents would support a tax hike equivalent to $23 per year per $100,000 of assessed valuation, 68 percent would vote in favor of a smaller property tax hike of $16 a year per $100,000 in assessed valuation.
Either level would free up $1.9 million in general funds that the county annually spends on road maintenance and repairs, an amount that a consultant recently said was nowhere near the roughly $8 million per year needed to maintain the roads system.
The larger tax hike would generate an estimated $7.9 million in annual revenues, while the lower rate would generate $5.4 million per year. County Treasurer Tom Oken reported that the infrastructure could be maintained at the lower tax rate, but that it would take longer to bring the roads and bridges up to the county’s own standards.
The $1.9 million in general fund savings is needed to cover increased costs in other services, he said, such as law enforcement, including the costs of a new judgeship created by the state Legislature; the “skyrocketing” costs of fuel and asphalt; and other aspects of the county’s duties.
“We will be facing significant cuts, probably, unless we take that $1.9 million to cover this,” Oken told the commissioners.
Bob Oxenberg, a member of the county’s financial advisory board, also opposed the property tax hike. Getting voter approval for the tax hike is “going to be really, really hard,” he told the board. “I’m saying let’s wait a year.”
But “one of the things we’re charged with is to look at the horizon,” Commissioner Michael Owsley responded.
He said that in looking forward and seeing a need for increased resources, it is the commissioners’ duty to take such issues to the voters for guidance.
“If people say no, they say no,” he remarked. “I won’t hold it against them, and we will have done our duty.”
The commissioners also decided to hold off on getting voter approval to eliminate the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (or TABOR) restrictions on the road tax, referred to as “de-Brucing” after the creator of the TABOR tax-and-spend limits.
In addition, the road tax is scheduled to be discontinued after 20 years, in what is known as a sunset clause.
The commissioners also indicated support for an increase of one-10th of 1 percent in the county’s sales tax rate, along with bonding authority for $12 million, to create a Healthy Rivers and Streams fund. The fund would be used “to maintain and improve water quality and quantity and river health in the Roaring Fork watershed,” according to the question’s proposed wording.
It is anticipated that the tax would yield $1 million a year in revenue, which would go to retire the debt in the $12 million in bonds. The bonds are needed to provide sufficient cash quickly for the purchase of water rights or the funding of legal defense of existing rights, according to Oken and county planner Cindy Houben.
“This is the time to ask this question,” Houben told the board. “Water is the topic in all the planning issues today … in collaboration with land use and conservation.”
Repeated references were made to water being the single most critical issue that will face Western Slope governments, and much of the United States.
“We are just in the bull’s eye,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards, referring to indications that water rights in the Roaring Fork River will be hotly contested by thirsty Front Ranch cities as well as downriver states.