Pitkin County to seek tax hikes for roads, water | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County to seek tax hikes for roads, water

John Colson The Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Pitkin County commissioners will seek voter permission to raise taxes in order to raise sufficient money to keep the local roads in good shape and to create a special fund to protect the countys access to water in the regions rivers and streams. The county also gave its approval Tuesday for a ballot question that would give the Open Space & Trails Board authority to complete a land swap involving the Ryan Parcel near the ghost town of Ashcroft, south of Aspen, although the ballot question itself might not be ready for the Nov. 4 general election. The land swap, which started in 1992 and has involved an act of Congress, among other efforts, is meant to turn the 35-acre Ryan Parcel over to the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for more than 262 acres of land elsewhere in the county, plus other considerations. The commissioners gave their nod of approval for that question and two others at a special meeting Tuesday, in time to meet the states Sept. 5 deadline for getting questions on the ballot. The overall tax increase actually will involve two questions relating to two separate tax hikes one requesting permission to raise the countys sales tax to pay for the water fund, the other to increase the countys property tax rate to pay for the roads. And while the sales tax hike, Referendum 1A, was approved unanimously by the commissioners this week, the property tax increase, Referendum 1B, brought out a sole dissenting vote from Commissioner Jack Hatfield. I still think the timing is wrong, Hatfield said, reiterating an argument he had made earlier that a property tax hike would be most harmful to low-income elderly and young people. His remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Commissioner Dorothea Farris. We do not operate with a fat budget, she said in response to suggestions by some that the county must already have the money somewhere to pay the estimated $5 million to $8 million per year that consultants say is the minimum amount needed to repair and maintain the countys roads and bridges. The countys current mill levy, 6.62 mills, generates roughly $28 million in annual revenues, of which less than $2 million per year goes to the road and bridge department. If the county simply uses existing revenues to pay for road improvements, she said, Its going to come from a program that others want, adding that she has no idea where the county could cut costs or services in order to maintain the roads. Arguing that people want the services they now get from the county government, Farris said to Hatfield, You could lead the way to a four- or five-day work week for the sheriff … or a day when they [county employees] cant help you at the county courthouse. Hatfield declined to respond to Farris remarks, but cast the sole no vote on Referendum 1B. Referendum 1A would raise the countys sales tax rate by one-tenth of 1 percent, or a dime on every $100 purchase of goods within the county, which is expected to generate approximately $1 million in revenues in the first year. Assuming the voters approve the dedicated sales tax, the county also is asking voters for permission to issue up to $12 million in bonds, with a maximum repayment cost of $21 million, which are to be repaid with the proceeds from the dedicated sales tax. The money will go into a special fund dedicated to water issues, including maintaining and improving water quality within the Roaring Fork River watershed, buying and defending water rights, and augmenting minimum streamflow protections for local creeks and streams, among other things. The fund, under the wording of the ballot question, would be administered by the county commissioners, with advice from a citizens board appointed by the county. Dale Will, director of the county’s Open Space and Trails program, also got permission from the commissioners to put a question to voters regarding the completion of the land swap. The Ryan Parcel deal involves a 35-acre parcel comprising the meadow between the old Toklat lodge and store and the Pine Creek Cookhouse. The U.S. Forest Service, Open Space and Trails and a variety of private parties have been working for 16 years to get the parcel into public hands as a way of preventing development in the upper reaches of the Castle Creek Valley floor. As the deal progressed, the Ryan Parcel was bought by Pitkin County and the Aspen Valley Land Trust for $3.2 million ($3 million from the county, $200,000 from AVLT), but negotiations bogged down at that point due to reluctance on the part of the Forest Service, according to a memo to the county from Will. Negotiations languished until two years ago, when Congress passed the Pitkin County Land Exchange Act of 2006. The act forced the Forest Service to go ahead with the swap, and now voter approval is needed to enable the county to deed the Ryan parcel over to the Forest Service. The complicated swap involves a total of 262 acres that the county will take title to, plus a conservation easement on another 56 acres, a trail easement along Highway 82 east of Aspen to extend a pedestrian trail there, and another pedestrian access easement along Difficult Lane in the same general area. Officials have said the county hopes to get all the needed signatures by Thursday to certify the ballot language for the Nov. 4 ballot. If not, the deal may wait another year before it is finalized.jcolson@aspentimes.com

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