Bus agency board member: Cut Garfield County’s service

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Garfield County’s funding contribution to the regional bus system is under fire by some Roaring Fork Transportation Authority officials.

Carbondale trustee John Hoffmann, a longtime RFTA board member, spurred the discussion about Garfield County in what was his last meeting with RFTA. Hoffmann must leave office this month because of term limits.

He didn’t go quietly. Hoffmann triggered a few snickers when he noted his wife “cut me off” when they were courting until he gave her a ring. Hoffmann said RFTA should cut off Garfield County until it pays more for bus service west of New Castle.

“Garfield County just doesn’t understand what they’re getting,” he said.

Some RFTA board members have contended for years that Garfield County doesn’t pay for all the service it receives.

Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron asked Hoffmann to clarify if he meant RFTA should stop service unless Garfield County becomes a full-funding partner in RFTA. Hoffmann confirmed that stance.

“This is a significant policy discussion that differs from existing policy, or potentially differs,” Skadron said.

RFTA has eight member governments — Pitkin and Eagle counties, and the municipalities of Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle. They fund operations through collection of sales taxes dedicated to transit.

Garfield County has refused to become a member, but negotiates an annual service contract with RFTA. Garfield county is paying more than $1 million per year under the current contract, said County Commissioner John Martin. The bulk of that is for the Grand Hogback bus service that extends to Rifle.

RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship told his board that Garfield County pays significantly more than it did years ago.

“It’s not like they’re not doing anything,” he said.

Basalt Mayor and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt, who has served on the board the longest among current members, noted that the conversation about Garfield County’s participation comes up regularly. She said it shouldn’t be “off-putting” that a local jurisdiction doesn’t want to be a full-blown member. A contract that requires Garfield County to pay its fair share for the services it provides is fair, she said.

Carbondale Mayor and RFTA board Chairwoman Stacey Bernot said that RFTA’s long-term funding position isn’t sustainable. The member entities will have to go to voters for an increase to sustain service, she said.

“It’s not if we go to the voters, it’s when,” she said.

Whitsitt said voters would likely be reluctant to approve a tax increase now. A property tax hike hit voters in the middle and lower valley after a bond issue was approved in November. Increased property valuations throughout the valley have led to higher property taxes.

“I think people are not very taxy right now,” Whitsitt said.

Bernot said if voters have tax fatigue, RFTA would likely be forced to eventually reduce service.

RFTA is engaged in a study to look at service levels and funding for the future. Board members agreed that a close look will be required for the level of service and payment for it west of New Castle in Garfield County.

Martin said the county commissioners don’t have a problem paying for the service they receive. They don’t want to become members because they will pay significantly more funds for the same service, he said. In addition, they don’t want to join because they will inherit deferred maintenance and debt.

Martin said the commissioners have “nothing bad” to say about RFTA, they just don’t want to join.

“It’s not at the top of our priority list,” he said.

The RFTA board thanked Hoffmann for his years of service at Thursday’s meeting, and Skadron quipped that the record will reflect that his last action was calling for service to be stopped for Garfield County.

“I told you he was going out with a bang,” Bernot said.