A rotten way to treat a very nice little local program | AspenTimes.com

A rotten way to treat a very nice little local program

When it was reported this week that three individuals have filed suit to overturn Aspen’s longstanding “food-tax rebate” program, the gut response of many locals was fairly predictable.

“Who the hell are they, and why are they doing this to us?” was the outraged tenor of most locals’ reaction, when they learned that two people from Basalt and one from Mobile, Ala. seem bent on killing the rebate program because they can’t get in on it.

This reaction is based on the belief that those of us who live and work here full time, and who are not wealthy, have not got an easy time of it. The cost of living here is significantly higher than in most of the United States of America, and local pay scales are not commensurate with those higher costs. But, to be fair, you have to recognize the fact that Aspen is a paradise of clean air and water, wonderful recreational opportunities, and small-town life at its finest. Everything is a balancing act.

Getting $50 from the city every year thanks to the food-tax rebate program certainly is not a heavy factor in this balancing act, but it is a nice, friendly handshake between the city and the full-time, working residents.

So now comes this lawsuit, and at first blush all we can see is red.

For one thing, why is somebody from Basalt suing Aspen? Is it jealousy because Basalt has no such rebate program? Is it simply more of that generalized “I-hate-Aspen” sentiment that seems to pervade the lower valley?

No, its the principle of the thing, says the plaintiffs’ attorney. They believe the city has wronged them by excluding them from the rebate program, even though the attorney admitted it’s not much money.

Well, what about the fact that people who live in Basalt can shop for groceries at lower prices? What about the fact that all costs of living are lower the farther you get from Aspen, from gasoline to real estate?

One troubling aspect of all this is the indication that the plaintiffs might drop their suit if the city agrees to some kind of settlement. Is this lawsuit, then, nothing but a ploy to try to milk a little money out of the city coffers?

The real problem here, of course, is that this lawsuit is a perfect way to even further drive a wedge between the working residents of Aspen and those who work in Aspen but live anywhere from 10 to 50 miles away. There already is plenty of bitterness to go around, and something like this can only make things worse.

Because the case has only just gotten started, there is not much that can be said about the possible remedies the city may have to come up with if the plaintiffs win in court. It may be that City Attorney John Worcester will discover an airtight defense for the city’s program, and the whole thing will end quickly and painlessly.

One possible remedy, of course, is to drop the rebate program, but that would hardly be any more equitable than giving it only to those who can prove they’ve lived in Aspen for a year.

Another is to simply kill the food tax altogether, which would save the average local about $85 a year on food bills and mean a loss of some $200,000 or more a year in city revenue.

There is something to be said for this idea, even though city bureaucrats will not take that kind of budget cut without some wailing.

With the city’s annual revenue stream in the $40 million range, a half-percent loss of revenue would seem to be easier to swallow than dumping a tax increase on those who can least afford it – the city’s working population.

For now, however, all such speculations are pointless. All we can do is wait and see how this case proceeds, and hope that it is not too damaging to our collective local psyche.

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