Garfield County commissioner calls for property tax relief
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A Garfield County commissioner is standing firm in his resolve to give seniors, and perhaps property owners in general, relief from their tax bills in 2010.
Commissioner John Martin renewed his call for property tax relief at the Dec. 14 regular meeting of the board of county commissioners, suggesting that the county could use some of its oil and gas mitigation fund to get the job done.
His two fellow commissioners, Tresi Houpt and Mike Samson, seemed to be leaning favorably toward the idea of offering help for senior citizens, but appeared skeptical about the wisdom of a tax credit for property owners in general.
Martin noted that, if the county were to offer an actual cut in taxes, 82 percent of the savings would be reaped by the energy companies operating in the county.
But, he continued, it has been the energy companies and their activities that have vastly increased property values in the county, which in turn has driven up tax bills paid by individual property owners.
County assessor John Gorman, while acknowledging that some relief might be warranted, noted that the use of energy mitigation funds might involve “a couple issues of possible inequity.”
For example, he said, “The folks who are impacted are the folks who are living in the gas patch [western Garfield County],” while other parts of the county have “escaped the impacts” of ubiquitous derricks, compression stations, dust from industrial traffic and possible health problems.
He also questioned whether property values have increased enough in general to warrant such a payout as Martin is discussing, since a great deal of the vast increase in the county’s assessed valuation is directly tied to energy companies and their properties.
Plus, Gorman said, gas patch residents have gotten some benefits already that residents of, say, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs do not get, in the form of healthy state payments to offset gas-industry impacts.
“It’s kind of an odd mix,” he said of the impacts and the possible justification for taxpayer relief.
And, he said, the county needs to be cautious about spending down its cash reserves, because of predictions that the county’s tax revenues will plummet in the coming years.
As a result of the national recession and a drop in gas prices, gas drilling has fallen off dramatically, and county revenues are tied to that activity.
The county’s oil and gas mitigation fund, which derives from energy-company payments to the state, is expected to hold more than $17 million at the end of this year. It is projected to rise above the $20-million mark by the end of 2010, according to the county’s 2010 budget, and has been mentioned as a source of needed cash when revenues drop off.
County Treasurer Georgia Chamberlain agreed with Gorman, saying she feels “uncomfortable trying to rush something through” in order to be able to announce it before tax bills go out, some time in January.
She indicated that there are programs in place to help people experiencing hardship, where the county might find it difficult to make sure its help is going where it is most needed.
Martin was undeterred, however, declaring that “We’ll be the only ones that will be able to give some money back” to hard-pressed property owners.
Commissioner Tresi Houpt reiterated her belief that the size of any checks the county could afford to send out would not be big enough to make much of a difference, and that the county needs to “plan for the long term” concerning the anticipated drop in revenues.
A senior relief program, she said, “would be a program that I could support,” but she insisted that the more general rebate idea needs further study.
“Some things may crop up later that we don’t know about today,” she said, and the county needs to be sure it has sufficient cash on hand to meet future needs.
“So it is very difficult … to start negotiating in a public session on how we tweak things to give money back,” Houpt concluded.
Commissioner Samson agreed that relief for seniors is something “would could probably pass … now.”
For a broader rebate, he said, “We need to work some things out.”
The commissioners agreed to keep discussing the idea, possibly at a meeting in January, 2010.
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Former race-car driver, current Lewis Cellars winemaker Randy Lewis hosts Aspen dinner alongside chef Byron Gomez as part of the “Aspen Summer Supper Club Series” at 7908.