Aspen’s electeds plan to spend tobacco tax revenue on substance abuse, prevention |

Aspen’s electeds plan to spend tobacco tax revenue on substance abuse, prevention

The city of Aspen is considering a $325,000 high-level plan to tackle substance abuse, addiction and prevention through the school district, aimed mostly at local youth and their parents.

The city is sitting on just over $436,600 that it collected last year as a result of a voter-approved tobacco tax, which is earmarked specifically for financing health and human services, tobacco-related health issues, and addiction and substance abuse education, according to CJ Oliver, the city’s environmental health and sustainability director.

“This is enough money to make a tangible difference,” he said Tuesday prior to making a presentation to Aspen City Council during a work session.

Council generally agreed on the partnership with the Aspen School District, as well as asking voters this fall to allow the city to keep an extra $111,622 from last year’s collections.

Aspen voters in 2017 agreed to a 40% sales tax on non-tobacco nicotine products and $3 on a pack of cigarettes.

The city anticipated it would collect $325,000. Last year’s additional money is subject to TABOR limitations and must either be returned to taxpayers, or the government can keep it if approved by voters.

If city voters approve the surplus funds this fall, the city does not have to go back and ask again if more than $325,000 is collected in future years, according to City Finance Director Pete Strecker.

The multi-year plan that’s being developed by the city and school district is designed to fill a gap in services that was discovered as health specialists and government officials worked on the tobacco tax two years ago, and the ban on all flavored tobacco and vaping products earlier this year.

They realized that there is minimal work being done directly with youth in the schools and other settings to prevent the use of tobacco and particularly vaping products, according to Oliver.

It has become a significant health and safety issue for students in the Aspen School District, according to recent statewide survey data.

One of the more significant allocations from the city will be the partial funding of a full-time mental health clinician in the school district.

Currently, Mind Springs Health has a part-time clinician in the schools; the city’s $36,400 annual contribution makes it a full-time job.

The city and Aspen Family Connections, which operates under the school district umbrella, will use the “AFC Prevention Initiative” as a multi-pronged approach.

“The scope ranges from teaching young people key life skills and educating them on the dangers of substance use to teaching parents the skills that will help them to effectively navigate parenting a child through a maze of endless temptations and risky situations they may face,” Oliver wrote in a memo to council.

Oliver noted a youth advisory group will be established as part of the effort.

Tom Heald, interim superintendent of schools, presented council with statistical data that showed that Aspen schools exceed state levels when it comes to the perceived availability of drugs, parental initiatives favorable toward substances, favorable attitudes toward substance use and the associated risk factors.

Heald said the statistics partly have to do with the socioeconomic class structure in Aspen.

“There’s an opportunity of privilege we can’t ignore,” he told council.

That’s why council members want to make sure that the tobacco tax money is targeting the adult population, as well.

Councilman Skippy Mesirow asked how the city can actually make a dent in the solving the problem when kids are exposed to all kinds of substance abuse, including “four adults getting drunk midday on a Tuesday” in downtown Aspen.

“A death by a thousand conversations,” Heald responded.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she is anxious to see specifics in the plan and a budget set around them.

Interim City Manager Sara Ott said staff will work on an intergovernmental agreement with the school district and present a budget once details are worked out.

It will likely include just the $325,000 in tax collections, and let the surplus funds stay in an account until voters decide what to do with the money and council comes up with other plans.

“I would prefer some money for other outreach efforts,” Mayor Torre said.

Mullins and Richards agreed that putting most of the money in one unified effort like the school district’s Aspen Family Connections is more effective.

“It’s taking more and more and more money to make an impact,” Mullins said.

Richards said it’s an ongoing effort to capture all children going through the grades and eventually to graduation, so the city’s tobacco tax revenue should be a continuous funding source.

“It’s not just a one-year booster shot and you are good to go,” she said.

It’s unknown what the tobacco tax collection amounts will be in future years, especially if neighboring communities pass their own taxes, Ott noted.

Pitkin County commissioners are set to ask voters in November to approve a cigarette and tobacco product tax that mirrors the city’s.

Commissioners spent part of Tuesday afternoon clarifying ballot language and ensuring the county doesn’t have to deal with the same tobacco tax issues the city must now address.

The county will ask voters to impose a $3.20 tax on a pack of cigarettes and a 40% tax on other tobacco products beginning Jan. 1, with a 10-cent increase every year until the per pack tax is $4.

Pitkin County, however, will likely estimate the amount of taxes it will collect at $700,000 — more than double the city’s estimate — so it doesn’t run into the same TABOR-related problems the city is attempting to remedy.

The strategy will leave the upper Roaring Fork Valley with a tobacco market where high prices meant to deter use are consistent, county health officials have said. Jason Auslander contributed to this article.