County puts brakes on road repairs
Aspen Times Staff Writer
No matter what voters do to the county budget this fall, two things are for sure: Owl Creek Road will not be paved in the foreseeable future, and Upper River Road will not be resurfaced for at least a decade.
The Pitkin County commissioners slashed funding Tuesday for both roads permanently, for all intents and purposes, in response to the county’s ongoing fiscal crisis.
The county faces a $2 million shortfall in its general fund budget this year and similar shortfalls over the next five or so years because of declining retail sales and the tax revenues they generate.
Nine full-time positions have been eliminated so far this year from the county payroll, and budget cuts have been made across the board in every department covered by the general fund. The general fund pays for the sheriff’s office, senior services, road improvements and maintenance, the building department, community development, the finance department, community relations, the treasurer’s office and a number of other departments and programs.
Yesterday’s cuts to the road program are partly in response to the outcome of the Aug. 13 primary election. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question that would have increased their residential property taxes by 80 cents for every $100,000 in property they own.
The fact that residents are unwilling to add $150,000 to the $17.4 million general fund could be an ominous sign, because the county is planning to ask for an even larger amount of money this fall.
The discussion yesterday covered several topics around the subject of property taxes and the fall election. The commissioners agreed that they should ask voters to let them keep $825,000 in excess property taxes that were collected this year, but they weren’t sure whether they needed to ask for more or whether they should set time limits on whatever amount they seek.
The cuts related to Owl Creek Road and Upper River Road, which runs through the Woody Creek neighborhood, are an effort to lower the amount the commissioners ultimately ask to keep. Eliminating capital improvements to both roads gives the commissioners another $470,000 a year to work with. If voters let the county keep the $825,000 in excess property taxes and make it a permanent part of the general fund budget, the county can maintain most of the programs currently in place.
If voters reject the county’s request, they will be refunded about $4.20 for every $100,000 in property they own. They will also see a significant number of services disappear, including animal control, senior services and activities, wildlife and ecological oversight, and grants to health and human service nonprofits, including YouthZone. The cuts will also include free dump day, when people are allowed to bring their trash to the county landfill without paying, and one-third of the Nordic Trails program budget.
“To me, taking the YouthZone off our list of funded projects is a perfect example of a penny-wise, pound-foolish spending decision,” said Commissioner Shellie Roy. YouthZone provides counseling and activities for teens and preteens who get in trouble with the law or at school.
The commissioners, who are often criticized for holding nonprofits and other popular programs hostage in exchange for a tax increase, say the programs laid out for the budgetary ax are all nonessential. Without a tax increase, the commissioners say the general fund will have to be committed to public safety, licensing, assessments and other programs mandated by state law.
“You just can’t have champagne service in a beer budget,” said Commissioner Mick Ireland.
Ireland said he thought the commissioners should limit their request to the amount of excess taxes collected this year. He also argued against dedicating the money toward one specific project, such as senior services or roads, or setting a sunset period too near in the future for the taxes to expire. He preferred a 10-year sunset provision, perhaps with conditions that would lower the property tax levy if sales tax collections improve.
Commissioner Patti Clapper said she thought the county should set a five-year limit on the property tax collections and indicated her support for making it a dedicated tax.
“I don’t see us getting any support for a property tax that’s for the general fund and is forever and ever,” Clapper said.
Dorothea Farris argued the county should ask for just that – a property tax increase for the general fund without a sunset provision. She pointed out that the increase would simply stabilize the county budget below current levels. She also questioned the wisdom of relying on sales taxes to come back and fill the gap that would be created when the property tax ended.
Commissioner Roy wanted to limit the increase to three-to-five years. “When I tell people that declining sales taxes are our problem, they ask me what will happen to their property taxes if sales taxes go up. They don’t believe we’ll cut them if we don’t have to,” Roy said.
Jack Hatfield, who voted for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights amendment that’s now making the job so difficult, said he thinks the November ballot should not include time limits or spending restrictions. But he wanted to craft the language to include a list of exactly what’s going to be cut if voters don’t help out.
“The amount of money we’re asking for here is so minimal, but it’s an ideological question we’re facing here,” he said. “I think we need to present a package of cuts that will occur if the question fails.”
[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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