RFTA ready to roll with campaign for bus system property tax | AspenTimes.com

RFTA ready to roll with campaign for bus system property tax

Buses buzz about the Rubey Park transit hub in Aspen. The Roaring Fork Transit Authority board of directors decided Thursday to seek property tax approval in November to help fund the regional bus system.

RFTA's board of directors voted Thursday to seek the organization's first-ever property tax from regional voters in November despite jitters that it could be a tough sell.

The board voted unanimously to seek a property tax of a 2.65 mill levy that is projected to raise in excess of $9 million in the first year it is implemented. The extra revenue will allow RFTA to add service to the regional bus system, replace buses, improve bus stations and tackle numerous projects from Aspen to New Castle. The tax is being touted as a way to relieve traffic congestion and boost mobility over the next 20 years.

RFTA board chairman George Newman said it is vital that proponents of the tax form a campaign committee as soon as possible to start promoting the tax with voters.

"This year's ballot is going to be the most crowded ballot in 15, 20 years," Newman said. "It will be a challenge on how much taxpayers are going to be willing to accept."

“It will be a challenge on how much taxpayers are going to be willing to accept.”

— George Newman, RFTA board chair

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There are two transportation-related questions on the statewide ballot in November and additional property tax increase proposals in Pitkin County and Aspen. Newman and other RFTA board members fear some voters will feel overwhelmed and limit their support for tax hikes.

Some campaigns have already cranked up, Newman noted, because early voting allows ballots to be cast as soon as the first half of October.

Results of three polls show support is slowly building for RFTA's property tax request, but it remains far from a slam-dunk. An initial scientific survey in June showed a property tax hike was a toss-up with 44 percent of respondents in favor and 43 percent opposed.

In a second question, after some information about the proposal was shared, the support increased to 51 percent in favor and 40 percent against, but with 9 percent undecided.

In an unscientific survey connected to an information mailer that was sent recently to 16,500 households, the support grew to 53 percent in favor to 34 percent against with 13 percent undecided.

Basalt Mayor and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt said it would be more reassuring to see stronger poll numbers. The actual vote almost always is closer than the polls indicate, she noted.

In a public hearing, audience member Robert Comey of Carbondale warned the RFTA board that the tax hike will be a tough sell without "sexier options."

"There's no sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in this," he said.

As a Carbondale resident, he said, he wants to see more projects proposed for Carbondale's mass transit system, such as an expansion of the overwhelmed BRT station near the intersection of Highways 82 and 133.

Audience member Paul Menter, a former finance director for the city of Aspen, said he was on the fence about the proposal. However, he urged RFTA to set a property tax proposal at a level that it needs rather than what it thinks voters will accept. Once setting the amount based on need, RFTA should go out and justify it with voters.

"Don't negotiate against yourself," he advised.

Menter's comments applied to RFTA's decision to reduce the property tax proposal from 3.65 to 2.65 mills. Board members leaned toward the lesser amount last month but there was some wavering Thursday on which amount would be better.

Newman urged the board to stick with 2.65 mills since that is the amount that's been presented in public meetings throughout the valley over the last month. He stressed the need to approve a ballot question pronto so an independent committee can get to work on the campaign.

Regarding the need for "sexier options," several board members said they hope that voters will look at RFTA's overall needs and how it helps the region's transportation solutions rather than base their vote on what the plan does for their specific town.

"Everybody really benefits from the expansion and improvement," Aspen Councilwoman and RFTA board member Ann Mullins said.

"This is a region. We have to be in this together," New Castle Mayor and RFTA board member Art Riddile said.

The proposed 2.65 mill levy would add $6.75 per month and $80.95 per year to the tax bill of a person with a home at an actual value of $500,000. It would add $64.04 per month and $768.50 annually to a commercial property with the actual value of $1 million.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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