Basalt dumps lodging tax, eyes shuttle tax
The Basalt Town Council played a game of musical tax proposals last night by shelving one idea but unveiling another.
A lodging tax, proposed just two weeks ago, fell out of favor. Instead the board voted to pursue a ballot question in November that would add a sales tax to generate revenues for shuttle service throughout town and into high-density areas of El Jebel.
Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt led the effort to “ditch” the lodging tax. She suggested that too many tax proposals on the ballot could doom all questions in these tough economic times.
“I think it tends to put people off and they tend to vote no for everything they see,” Whitsitt said. “We don’t want to be perceived as piggies because we went home rule.”
The town government switched from a statutory style of government to home rule this year. That gives it more autonomy from state regulations. It gives Basalt the power to do things such as seek voter approval for new taxes.
As a statutory government, Basalt couldn’t exceed a 7 percent cap on its total sales tax. Now it can exceed that cap – if the government sells the idea to the citizens.
Whitsitt and Councilman Jon Fox-Rubin promoted the idea of shuttle service for the town. The concept has been considered for years, even when the idea was to just serve what’s known as old town – the commercial core and residential areas surrounding it.
“Since that time, our town has grown about 14 miles long,” said Whitsitt. She was exaggerating a bit. Annexation of the El Jebel City Market extended the town four miles downvalley. Annexation of the Roaring Fork Golf Club extended it one mile upvalley.
Whitsitt noted that every town in the Roaring Fork Valley operates shuttle service except Carbondale and Basalt. Carbondale is preparing plans for such service.
Dan Blankenship, RFTA general manager, said the agency wants to develop a system where buses stick to Highway 82 rather than peel off the artery and into the towns. That will cut costs and make for quicker – thus more attractive – service.
The town hasn’t worked out details of the sales tax for shuttle service yet, but it has to notify Pitkin and Eagle counties by July 28 that it intends to put a question on the November ballot. The Town Council has until Sept. 10 to craft the language of the ballot question.
The board will consider a sales tax increase ranging from 0.5 to 1 percent. Town Manager Tom Baker estimated in a memo that a 1 percent tax, that includes food, would raise $1 million annually in 2003 dollars.
The Roaring Fork Transit Authority has estimated that it would cost roughly $715,000 per year to operate shuttle service throughout Basalt and to the Blue Lake subdivision. That assumed service from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the year. That would equate to about 60 daily trips.
Although Blue Lake and El Jebel are outside of Basalt’s boundaries, service to those areas would be vital to the shuttle’s success, said Councilman Leroy Duroux. He estimated they would account for 50 percent of the ridership.
It hasn’t been determined yet if Basalt would contract out service to RFTA or operate the shuttle service itself. Duroux and Fox-Rubin said they would be against fares. They want free shuttle service.
Fox-Rubin said the public’s input will be needed to see what size of sales tax, if any, should be pursued. “We only want to do it if citizens are saying, `Yeah, go for it,'” he said.
The lodging tax was abandoned after it was only half baked. The council decided two weeks ago it wanted to pursue the tax, although opinions were divided over potential uses. One possible use was for marketing for the town, which may have proved controversial.
Councilwoman Anne Freedman said perhaps that lodging tax could be proposed in April.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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