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Basalt economy defies logic, posts strong gains despite pandemic

People enjoy a meal in the outdoor seating in Willits Town Center on June 25. The restaurant industry is hurting despite efforts to expand outdoor seating. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

TRANSPARENCY TEST

The Basalt Town Council passed a test on transparency Tuesday night just seconds after approving a settlement of a lawsuit over not being transparent.

The council approved paying $115,000 in legal fees racked up by Basalt resident Ted Guy in a lawsuit against the town. Guy alleged the council violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law and Colorado Open Records Act in various closed meetings called executive sessions in 2016. Guy prevailed in June on most of his complaint in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Seconds before approving the settlement, town attorney Jeff Conklin requested an executive session at the end of the meeting to discuss water utility easements. Council members balked at setting the closed meeting because it wasn’t noticed in advance.

“My intuition tells me better safe than sorry,” said Councilman Bill Infante. “We have put many legal issues behind us. I don’t want to provoke another one.”

Councilman Glenn Drummond added, “I just want to be legal here.”

Conklin assured them they had discretion to hold the executive session without notice as long as it was properly disclosed at the meeting. The council remained wary and no executive session was held.

Basalt’s economy — with notable exceptions — has shrugged off the coronavirus pandemic.

After another strong performance in June, the town government’s sales tax collections are up 15.4% year-to-date over last year.

Sales tax revenues were up 26.3% in July, reflecting sales in June. About half of the increase was due to late sale tax remittances, but actual sales were up about 13%.

“This result is surprisingly different than one would expect with the financial impacts anticipated by the pandemic,” town finance director Christy Chicoine wrote in a report to the Town Council.

“This result is surprisingly different than one would expect with the financial impacts anticipated by the pandemic.” Christy Chicoine Basalt town finance director

There have been clear-cut winners and losers in the COVID-influenced economy. Sales by grocery stores and liquor stores have surged as people are spending more time eating and drinking at home. On the flip side, restaurants have suffered double-digit losses in sales and lodges can’t keep pace with last year.

Grocery stores were up 9% in June while liquor stores were up 38.6%. Other big winners for the month are building supplies, up 49.5%; general retail, up 27%; and sporting goods, up 52.6%.

Despite the effort to expand outdoor seating, restaurants with bars saw sales plummet 32% in June while restaurants without bars fell 7%. Lodges were down 40% for the month.

The same pattern played out year-to-date. The town has collected $4.08 million in sales taxes so far this year compared with $3.54 million at the same point last year. That’s an increase of nearly $545,000.

“The main drivers for this increase are the sales tax from online sales due to the new sales tax rules that went into effect last year as well as a local increase in liquor sales, retail food, and building,” Chicoine wrote.

For the year-to-date, grocery stores are up 11%. They comprise the single largest segment of Basalt’s economy.

The strong performance through June has convinced town government officials to adjust revenue projections for the year. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in mid-March, sharp economic fallout was expected and the town budget was revised to reflect reduced income.

“The month of July turned the tide for revenue,” Chicoine wrote in her financial update to the council. “There is now an increase in revenue projected for 2020 that currently totals $221,864.”

Nevertheless, officials are still tempering expectations for 2021 and beyond because of the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and the implications for the economy. They are looking at an estimated 5% reduction in revenues in 2021 and 10% for 2022.

The town staff recently launched work on the 2021 budget.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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