County will ask for tax boost | AspenTimes.com

County will ask for tax boost

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Pitkin County Commissioners voted 4-0 Wednesday to ask voters for an $800,000 property tax increase.

The tax, if approved, will cost roughly $42 a year for every $1 million in property value.

The missing vote on the question was Jack Hatfield’s.

Hatfield showed up late for the meeting, which was being broadcast live on Grassroots TV. He arrived moments after the tax vote was finished.

Hatfield emphasized after the meeting that his non-vote should not be construed to mean anything. “I’m supportive of what we did, as a team member. It was vastly improved from first reading. We are unanimous in our support of it,” he said.

The ballot question requires all of the money collected be spent on community nonprofit organizations and health and human services programs. It also requires that taxes be lowered after five years, in 2006, to reflect the level that would have been collected if the increase had never happened. The five-year life of the tax would begin in 2002.

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The programs listed in the ballot question include seniors’ services, at-risk youth activities and counseling, mental health counseling, drug and alcohol abuse counseling and prevention, care for the terminally ill, support for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, prenatal care, family planning, vaccination and immunization, and services for the developmentally disabled. Other nonprofit programs that would benefit are Grassroots TV, the nordic trail system, and environmental organizations such as the Independence Pass Foundation.

If the tax question fails, county support for most of the programs listed above will be eliminated or drastically cut.

“The threat always looms large for health and human services, because it’s discretionary funding,” said Nan Sundeen, the county’s health and human services director. “This question, if it passes, gives us stable funding through these hard times so we can continue to provide the services the community needs.”

If voters approve the tax hike, their property tax bills will not go up as a result, because the county is asking to keep money it has already collected. Last year, in anticipation of the looming budget crisis, the county commissioners voted 4-1 to collect about $1 million more than they were allowed to spend under state law, and then ask voters for permission to keep some or all of it.

So far this year, the county has laid off three employees and eliminated nine positions overall, cut operating expenses by 5 to 10 percent, and scaled back or eliminated several programs. Four more jobs, several major road projects and most of the county’s support for health and human services are on the chopping block if voters decline to increase their taxes.

The ballot question approved Wednesday asks permission to keep $800,000 of the $975,000 in excess taxes collected this year, as well as for permission to continue collecting the additional $800,000 through 2006. If voters approve, the taxes levied for the county general fund will actually go down by about $6 per $1 million in property value, because the county would refund the $175,000 in unused excess.

“I think we have a very winnable question because it gives voters the power to say what will live and what will die,” said Commissioner Mick Ireland. “I hope Jack will join us in urging voters to do what he has said is the right thing ? that’s voting to authorize money for these services.”

Hatfield arrived at Wednesday’s meeting immediately after the commissioners voted on the third and final reading of the ballot question. As he sat down, he declined to make a statement one way or another about the issue, in spite of an offer from his fellow commissioners to reopen the discussion.

The fact that Hatfield declined to make a statement while the cameras from Grassroots TV were rolling puzzled some commissioners and county staff members, but it does give the Snowmass Village commissioner a hat trick of sorts: In late August, he voted against the tax question; on Tuesday this week he voted for it; and on Wednesday he didn’t vote at all.

“It didn’t matter,” Hatfield said of Wednesday’s vote. “They had already done it and I had voted for it the day before.” He also said the fact that Grassroots TV was filming Wednesday’s meeting had nothing to do with his decision.

Hatfield’s record on budget and taxes has not always been in line with the rest of the commissioners.

Last fall, he voted against the 2002 budget partly because he objected to the plan to collect more money than the county is allowed to spend under state and local laws. At the time, he made it clear that if the county needed more money, it should be straightforward and ask voters for a tax increase. He didn’t like the idea of asking them for permission to keep “excess funds” collected without their permission.

As the year wore on and the county had to make more and more cuts, Hatfield came around to the prevailing point of view on the need for a tax increase.

He said his no vote on first reading two weeks ago was his way of saying there’s more work to be done. By the time the question reached the commissioners for second reading on Tuesday, it had been whittled down from $975,000 for the general fund to $800,000 dedicated to health and human services and community nonprofits. In addition, the 5-year time limit was added, which was more acceptable to Hatfield.

Hatfield said he was actually in favor of a 10-year sunset provision, calling the 5-year cutoff shortsighted.

“It means we’re going to have to have this discussion all over again in four years, which doesn’t make sense,” he said.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]

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