County tests waters on tax hikes, seeks Basalt’s advice

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

BASALT ” The Pitkin County commissioners floated ideas for two new taxes past the Basalt Town Council on Tuesday and, perhaps not surprisingly, received a warm reception.

The commissioners are leaning toward asking voters in November to approve a property tax increase for road improvements and a sales tax increase to secure existing water rights and possibly acquire new ones to ensure minimum flows in streams and rivers.

County officials said studies show they need to invest nearly $8 million into road improvements annually for the next 20 years just to maintain routes to a “fair” condition, said County Manager Hilary Fletcher. If there are no additional funds for road projects, the average condition of county roads will deteriorate to “poor” within eight years, the study showed.

County officials said they are just beginning to contemplate a campaign strategy to get voters to approve a tax during a tough economic time.

Commissioner Michael Owlsley suggested that the strategy focus on the dire consequences if the tax isn’t passed. “Hold onto your SUV, you’re going to need it,” he quipped.

The county has the option of seeking a tax hike through the general fund or through a special road and bridge fund. If it is sought through a special road and bridge tax levy, the state would require the county to share one-half of the tax revenues with municipalities such as Basalt. If that was the case, county officials said, they would have to seek voter approval for a higher tax amount to raise $8 million annually just for the county. That would raise the risk of generating more opposition.

On the other hand, the higher tax amount could raise $113,000 annually for Basalt to spend on road projects.

Basalt Mayor Leroy Duroux advised the commissioners to seek the smaller tax hike. Asking for a higher amount wasn’t worth the risk involved with voters just to raise $113,000 annually for Basalt, he said.

The other Basalt council members didn’t argue with that advice.

Voters might be a tougher sell than the Basalt Town Council. Fletcher said a polling firm has been hired to survey county voters on taxing issues. The results will be unveiled in early June and used to determine if the questions should be popped in November.

The county commissioners also are contemplating a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to raise $1 million annually for a “water fund.”

County officials said they need at least $150,000 annually for technical and legal advice to verify and enforce water rights and to negotiate water rights purchases.

Commissioner Dorothea Farris said she believes that the tax hike will appeal to voters because it helps maintain minimum water levels in streams and rivers.

Unappropriated water in the Roaring Fork River is gazed upon with envious eyes by water authorities in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, county officials claimed.

The message to voters, Farris said, will be something like: “This is important. If you want to see water in our streams, you need to approve this.”