City proposing tax for open space
City voters will be asked in November whether they want to pay more sales taxes to help the city buy and preserve open space in and around Aspen.
The ballot question is still in the formative stages, but at this point, the City Council is eyeing a .49 percent sales-tax increase that would raise more than $50 million over its 25-year lifespan.
And while the tax question is not directly linked to another ballot question, concerning the fate of Bass Park, the two questions are definitely related.
The tax, if passed as discussed at a Tuesday work session of the City Council, would bring the total sales-tax rate in Aspen to 8.6 percent – still low among ski resort towns in the state, according to city officials.
According to Finance Director Tabatha Miller, the city currently assesses a sales tax of 1.7 percent, the county’s rate is 3.5 percent, and the state charges 3 percent, for a total of 8.2 percent. But, Miller said, the state is about to drop its tax rate by .09 percent.
The council agreed that by holding to the .49 percent increase, the city will be presenting voters with an easily understood “round number” for its total sales-tax rate if the increase is approved.
Among the potential uses for the tax revenues is to pay for Bass Park, which the city bought in 1999 for $3.4 million.
The small park, located at Monarch and Hopkins, was purchased with $3.3 million from the city’s housing/day-care fund and $100,000 from the city’s parks and open-space fund.
The original idea was that the parcel would be used for affordable housing or kept as a park, or some combination of the two. But when the city put four separate questions before the voters last year, asking how citizens wanted the park to be used and paid for, the voters simply rejected all four questions.
Earlier this year, the City Council discussed seeking a .3 percent sales tax with a 10-year term, the proceeds of which would be used to keep Bass Park a park.
But council member Tony Hershey objected that the tax would raise just over $12 million, far more than the $4.7 needed to pay the housing fund back, with interest, for Bass Park. Lacking greater clarity about what the money would be used for, Hershey argued, the voters might just reject the question again.
Council member Jim Markalunas, however, argued that a .3 percent tax isn’t enough and suggested the city needs to get moving on a healthy open-space fund in general.
At the meeting on Tuesday, there was general agreement that a broader tax question is preferable, though there was some concern that the voters may balk at paying both a county property tax and a city sales tax for open space. Pitkin County assesses a property tax of 3.7 mils for its open-space fund, which raises roughly $5.2 million per year.
“They might be getting a double hit, but they’re getting a double benefit,” responded Hershey, supporting the idea that the city needs its own sales tax for open space.
The council members differed about how long the term of the tax should be, though all agreed that a 10-year term would be too short to be of much use.
While Councilman Terry Paulson felt a 30-year term would provide more money and probably not spark a voter revolt, Hershey, Markalunas and Mayor Rachel Richards concluded that a 25-year term would be more acceptable to the voters.
“There’d be more people vote for 25 than for 30,” declared Markalunas. “Thirty years sounds like a mortgage.”
The council also decided that, while the sales-tax question would be separate from the Bass Park question, the descriptive remarks on the ballot would indicate that if the tax increase passes, part of the money would go to keep Bass Park as a park.
And if the tax question fails, Richards said, the city will move ahead to build housing on Bass Park.
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