Basalt Issue 3A: Setting property tax rate gains widespread support
Basalt officials were finally breathing easy Tuesday night after a year of budget uncertainty.
The town government’s request to re-establish a property tax mill levy was ahead by a comfortable 257-vote margin with a handful of votes remaining to count. As of 11 p.m., there were 613 votes in favor of the mill levy and 356 against. That’s a margin of 63.3% to 36.7%.
The vote on the property tax rate was required after town staff discovered in fall 2018 that the government had been violating the Colorado Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights for more than a decade by raising the property tax rate without voter approval. The council responded by approving $2.1 million in refunds for four years of overcharges and placing a question on the ballot to re-establish the tax rate.
“I think we’ve continued to forge ahead to solve the problem,” Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said Tuesday night after the voting trend was clear. “With that came earning the trust from their constituency.”
Issue 3A asked for permission to set the property tax rate at 5.957 mills, the same as last year. Without that approval, Basalt would have been forced to drop to a mill levy of 2.562 — the lowest level it has been since the Colorado Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights was approved in 1992.
The lower mill levy would have forced Basalt to slash about $700,000 from its budget for 2020 and future years.
“The reality is you can slash $700,000 from your budget and you might not feel it in year one,” Mahoney said. But the cumulative effect of the budget cuts would eventually mean infrastructure repairs wouldn’t be made as frequently, vehicles wouldn’t be replaced and special projects couldn’t be pursued, he said.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said she felt many voters understood the implications, despite the complexity of the issue. It was a low-key campaign, but when she went door-to-door, it seemed like voters were informed, she said.
Since the TABOR violation was discovered, the town government took steps to beef up its financial oversight. It added citizen watchdogs to its financial advisory board. It changed budget approval procedures to increase transparency of the mill levy.
“I think the town has really ramped up their game on transparency and financial reporting,” Whitsitt said.
She said the results were a personal relief, as well. Whitsitt must leave office in April due to term limits. She didn’t want to leave office with the town facing a dire financial situation.
“It’s great to go out on a high note,” she said.
Mahoney said voter approval of the ballot question means the town can “stay on track” with its strategic plan, which includes everything from regular maintenance of roads and sidewalks to efforts to add affordable housing and assist with affordable day care.
The ballot measure also gives future town council flexibility in raising and lowering the property tax rate — as long as it stays under 5.957 mills. Any increase above that level requires voter approval.
Despite the stakes, the election didn’t entice many Basalt residents to vote. As of deadline time Tuesday night, there were 969 ballots cast with a small amount remaining to be counted. There are about 2,200 registered voters, so the turnout was about 42 percent.
There were 844 votes cast in the last municipal election in April 2018.
The measure was supported by a comfortable margin in both Eagle and Pitkin counties. Basalt is divided among the two.
In the Eagle County portion of Basalt, the vote was 429 in favor and 267 against as of 11 p.m. The margin was 184 in favor and 89 against in the Pitkin County portion of Basalt.
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The field for three open seats on Aspen City Council in this spring’s election is set at 10 people, most of who are newcomers to Aspen’s political scene. Eight are going for the two council seats and two candidates are vying for mayor.