Decisions pending on critical public health fund | AspenTimes.com

Decisions pending on critical public health fund

Pitkin County commissioners are debating how to ask voters to re-approve a property tax critical to funding Pitkin County's public health efforts as well as numerous local nonprofits that benefit the community's wellbeing.

The two main questions, still to be decided before ballot language about the Healthy Community Fund must be submitted in early September, involve how much to ask for and for how long.

"I would rather maintain the six-year (term of the tax) and go for a higher mill levy to address the growing needs," Commissioner George Newman said at a meeting earlier this month.

The Healthy Community Fund, established in 2002, raised $2.3 million last year on the back of a mill levy that generates $5.40 per $100,000 of assessed property value. It was re-authorized by voters in 2006 with 70 percent support and in 2011 with 61 percent support, said Mitzi Ledingham, Pitkin County's strategic partnerships manager.

The money helps fund 70 area nonprofits in the Roaring Fork Valley that aid the community in the form of mental health or substance abuse programs, integrated health care, recreation programs, conservation efforts and by addressing other social and community concerns.

In addition, 21 percent of the Healthy Community Fund money collected goes toward funding senior services. This year, $125,000 helped fund the county's new Public Health Department, though that is expected to balloon to $425,000 next year, Ledingham said.

Recommended Stories For You

"We have a lot of new expenses," said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock.

The county recently paid a Washington, D.C.-area pollster to ask 300 registered voters about their opinions of the fund.

Of those, 84 percent said they'd vote to renew the fund at its current tax level, according to the poll results. The lowest level of support came from Republicans, though support still remained at 60 percent with that group. Democrats at 93 percent and men between the ages of 18 and 54 at 90 percent offered the highest support.

The poll twice asked voters about the length of the tax — once at the beginning of the list of questions and once at the end. At first, a majority of voters — 55 percent — said they wanted to keep the tax length at its current six-year level, according to the results.

That number rose to 61 percent when voters were again asked about length after hearing more information about the fund and what it does.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, 52 percent of those polled were in favor of increasing the mill levy from $5.40 to $6.50. That increase was supported by 67 percent of Democrats, though the support did not extend to a majority of Republican or Independent voters, according to the poll results. Younger voters supported the increase over older voters as well.

"It's probably a mistake to ask for an increase of time and to bump up the percentage (of the mill levy)," Commissioner Steve Child said during a discussion of the poll results late last month. "It's one or the other."

Pollster Keith Fredrick of Arlington, Virginia, also noted that the number of tax questions on the ballot should factor in to commissioners' decision on what to ask in relation to the Healthy Community Fund as voters respond poorly when asked to fund too many taxes. This year's local ballot also is likely to contain a mill levy tax question to fund the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority as well.

The issue is set to be discussed again later this month and early next month before Sept. 7, the hard deadline for ballot language to be submitted.

jauslander@aspentimes.com