At Aspen resident’s urging, council will mull even higher food-tax rebate | AspenTimes.com

At Aspen resident’s urging, council will mull even higher food-tax rebate

Aspen residents who cash in on the city's food-tax rebate program might see more than the $55 refund City Council members tentatively agreed to earlier this month.

Six days after they informally agreed to increase the refund by $5 from the $50 amount that's been in place since 1998, City Council members, at the urging of resident Mike Maple, said they would take a closer look at the refund amount in early 2018.

"All I know is that it (refund increases) was routinely done from 1970 to 1998," Maple told City Council on Dec. 19.

Depending on the methodology City Council uses to calculate a raised refund, it "could be as high 80 or 90 dollars," Councilman Adam Frisch said at the time.

As for now, the additional $5, which equates to a 10 percent increase, "quite frankly is really offensive to the spirit of the 1970 ordinance, whereby this notion of a food-tax refund was a deal made between the taxpayers that approved the ordinance and the city of Aspen," said Maple, noting his household spends roughly $15,000 annually on food purchases from Aspen supermarkets.

In the meantime, the city's Finance Department is in the process of drafting food-tax applications reflecting a $55 refund for each resident of an Aspen household, said Pete Strecker, the assistant finance director Thursday.

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However, should the City Council opt to raise that amount, residents who submit the applications would be eligible for the increased refund, he said.

"I don't think anybody would be opposed to that," he said.

Maple has argued that the $5 increase is so paltry that it violates both the letter and the spirit of sales tax measures approved by Aspen residents at a special election held in September 1970 and a municipal election in November 1972.

In the 1970 election, Aspen voters approved the imposition of a 1 percent sales tax, which also applied to food purchases. In addition to the food-tax refunds, the sales tax also was intended to support the city's acquisition of "real property or the construction of capital improvements for municipal purposes," along with costs associated with construction or capital improvements, according to city records from the time.

The annual refund at the time was $7.

In the 1972 election, voters approved raising the sales tax to 2 percent, resulting in the refund amount tripling to $21. That tax hike also was to pay for food-tax refunds as well as land acquisitions, capital improvements, general operating purposes and other purposes, city records show.

The refund was raised to $39 in 1981 and $50 in 1998. Seniors also currently receive an additional $100 refund, while blind residents collect an extra $50.

"One simple way would be to go to $50 in 1998 and apply inflation," Frisch said. "That would be the first approach I would take."

CPI inflation calculators show that $39 in January 1981 would be worth $108.86 in January 2017. Fifty dollars in January 1998 would have the same buying power as $75.14 in January 2017.

"I think this is something we can look at when it comes to council," Myrin said. "Whether it's inflation adjusted from 1998, $50, or 1981, $39, going forward some rational number based on the time, that's what I would support."

Frisch isn't revisiting the issue every decade or so.

"Just because people didn't look at it for a generation doesn't mean we shouldn't continue looking at it," Frisch said.

All told, shoppers in Aspen pay a sales-tax rate of 9.3 percent — 2.9 percent goes to the state, 3.6 percent to Pitkin County, 2.4 to the city, and 0.4 percent to Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

The city currently distributes about $170,000 in food-tax refunds, plus the cost of administration, according to a memo from Finance Director Don Taylor to City Council.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com