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Aspen education leaders float trial balloon on sales-tax plan

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The interim director of the Aspen Education Foundation spoke to local business leaders Tuesday morning to float the idea of a new dedicated sales tax to help the Aspen School District with its revenue needs.

At Tuesday’s Aspen Chamber Resort Association board meeting, Robin Hamill spoke about how an independent taxing authority could be created to administer the tax revenue to the district, which faces a funding crunch in the 2012-13 school year and beyond.

Board members expressed no strong feelings one way or the other about the idea, which was described as a preliminary idea for which local education leaders are seeking input and not a concrete proposal.

The foundation wants to raise an additional $2.5 million annually for the district, either through a city sales tax, a countywide sales tax or a taxing area that conforms to the district’s boundaries. Neither the district nor the foundation wants to rely on the State Assembly to pick up the slack, especially since Colorado has education funding pressures of its own.

“We have had discussions with a variety of stakeholders, and there seems to be a growing momentum that we need to take care of this problem ourselves,” Hamill said. “We can’t wait for Denver to solve this education funding crisis for us.”

Hamill added, “I’m not a tax-and-spend guy, but in a moment of crisis, you tend to put every option on the table. In this community … we think there is a passion about education.”

He mentioned that because a majority of Pitkin County voters supported Proposition 103, a school funding proposal that Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected in November, there might be support for a local sales-tax increase that would assist the Aspen district.

Proposition 103 sought to raise nearly $3 billion in income and sales taxes throughout Colorado over a five-year span. In Pitkin County, the vote for the plan was 57 percent yes, 43 percent no.

If a tax measure is to be placed on next November’s ballot, the language for it would need to be approved by August, Hamill said.

Aspen School District Superintendent John Maloy said during the meeting that the goal is to maintain the high level of quality the school district enjoys. A district priority is to avoid staff cuts and to keep class sizes small, he said.

According to the city of Aspen’s Finance Department, each 0.1 percent of the city’s sales tax raises about $501,000 annually. Therefore, a new 0.5 percent tax could generate about $2.5 million in the city alone. On each dollar in local sales, Aspen shoppers pay 9 percent in sales taxes, of which 2.1 percent goes to the city and the remaining 6.9 percent covers county, state and special taxing districts.

The foundation has said recently that it is modeling the initiative on a similar tax in Steamboat Springs. The nonprofit Steamboat Springs Education Fund currently administers the proceeds of a half-cent sales tax dedicated to the Steamboat Springs, Soroco and Hayden school districts. The fund was established in 1993 and extended by voter approval in three subsequent elections.

Hamill also brought up the idea of a “Community Business Day” in which local businesses would contribute 5 percent of gross sales to the foundation, money which in turn would be handed over to the school district for its general fund. He estimated that if held on March 21 and fully supported, the fund drive would generate $94,000.

Some chamber board members said March 21 would be too soon to hold the event, given the uncertainties surrounding the remainder of the winter tourism season. However, there were indications of support for the concept if there were more planning and if the event were to take place at a later date.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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