Council blesses Aspen school-tax idea
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council generally agreed Tuesday to advance plans to place a citywide sales tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot to provide more money to the Aspen School District.School and city officials spoke during a City Hall work session about how a 0.35 percent tax increase could benefit the local school system, which faces property tax and state funding decreases over the next few years. The tax would raise an extra 35 cents on each $100 of purchases within the city of Aspen. The current city sales tax rate is 2.1 percent, or $2.10 on each $100 of purchases bought from city businesses.During the meeting, City Manager Steve Barwick advanced the notion that the Aspen Education Foundation’s proposal was less than fair because most of the district’s students live outside the city. Pitkin County and Snowmass Village officials have indicated that they aren’t willing to support a countywide tax proposal this fall to help the schools. The county is planning to ask voters for a property tax increase later this year to help pay for a library expansion and related operating costs, though its elected officials have yet to officially vote to put the item on the ballot. Amid all those factors, council members reached a general consensus to let city voters decide the issue on Nov. 6 – but only if a poll the foundation conducts later this month indicates widespread support for the measure.”Sometimes we have to choose to do something that’s unfair, but it’s for the greater good,” Mayor Mick Ireland said. “I think people will support doing the right thing even if it’s not perfect.”Taxes aren’t evil; they’re necessary.”Though school officials spoke of a high school ranked recently by U.S. News & World Report as the best in the state and No. 59 in the nation, Ireland suggested that part of the reason for that ranking was that so many other school districts in Colorado and nationwide have fallen behind.Ireland said he would prefer a districtwide tax but that in the absence of that, something else should be done. He said the state has “dropped the ball” over the past few decades with regard to education funding. He added that the local community generally is undertaxed.”We’re failing in so many ways, and our kids are just falling further behind,” he said.Don Taylor, Aspen’s finance director, estimated that a 0.35 percent tax in the city would generate about $1.75 million annually. The foundation wants to create an entity – perhaps called the Aspen Education Fund – with an 11-member board responsible for doling out the money to the school system. That entity would operate separately from, but in conjunction with, the local school board and the foundation and could be made up of specially elected members.Aspen Education Foundation interim director Robin Hamill said the school board supports the foundation’s plan, which is modeled after a revenue-generating program for schools in Steamboat Springs that was created in 1992 and extended three times in the face of sunset limitations. He asked the council to become the third party in the team to drive the plan home.”We acknowledge that it’s not perfect,” Hamill said of a city-only tax. “We acknowledge that these guys (city officials) and a lot of other stakeholders in the community actually returned our phone calls and were willing to sit down and listen to us.”I’m not saying that other municipalities weren’t willing. I think everyone supports education. Nobody’s going to come out and say, ‘We don’t believe in our kids. We don’t believe in our schools.’ The issue is how much scope there is.”Barwick asked why the foundation and school district are seeking a sales tax increase that would raise $1.75 million annually when the district’s projected budget deficits from now until 2016 fall into a range of $660,000 to $980,000 annually, depending on the year.Foundation and district officials replied that they aren’t looking to add new programs but merely want to maintain the level of quality Aspen schools currently enjoy in terms of technology and curriculum. They also are seeking to provide more money to teachers.According to schools Superintendent John Maloy, the district has implemented selective cutbacks in recent years to avoid the types of massive layoffs and program cuts to which other districts across the state have resorted. “The next round of cuts will impact the classrooms,” he said.”Unfortunately, it’s costing us more and more to educate children,” Maloy added later in the two-hour meeting. “We’re not looking to be greedy. We understand that we need to certainly be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars when making reductions just as private households are making their reductions. But it comes to a point where it’s going to impact our ability to provide quality education with the quality staff that we’ve (had) over the last few years.”Following numerous questions and comments, council members nodded when Hamill asked if he could begin working with City Attorney Jim True on ballot language for the sales tax increase. However, they also indicated that next week’s survey should cast a wider net than just the city’s voters to show Pitkin County commissioners whether there is support for a countywide tax. Council members also want to know if voters support some sort of sunset provision that would force an end to the special tax after four years or another length of email@example.com
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No official vote has taken place, but the Dillon Town Council has decided to push forward with an ordinance at a future meeting despite a contentious debate that clearly divided council members on the issue.