Midvalley’s Crown Mountain Park ballot question relies on trust factor
When Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District goes to voters in May for a property tax increase, there will be guidelines though nothing legally binding on how the new revenue could be spent.
The district is pledging in campaign materials to spend 50 percent of the new revenue to replace existing infrastructure, 32 percent on operations and maintenance and 18 percent on building the reserve fund. That breaks down to new revenue of about $350,000 annually for replacing infrastructure, $220,000 for operations and maintenance and $125,000 for reserve funds.
Crown Mountain will ask voters for a 1.95 mill-levy property tax increase in the May 8 election. The district said the extra revenue is vital to replacing the aging infrastructure and maintaining the park to the current standards.
The board of directors and staff decided against putting the spending percentages in the ballot question to make them binding. However, the organization is being very up front about the spending plans so it would be hard to deviate from that formula, said Becky Wagner, executive director of the park and recreation district.
The spending percentages weren’t included in the ballot question because the current administration didn’t want to tie the parks department’s hands in the distant future as needs change.
“It is hard to determine what the makeup of the park will look like 20 years from now,” Wagner wrote in an email in response to a question from The Aspen Times. “To put restrictions on using certain funding for existing infrastructure improvements, operations and maintenance and reserves isn’t in the best interest of the community the park serves.”
Wagner said voters can be assured there is no plan to use the new funds for a recreation center. Midvalley voters soundly defeated a ballot proposal for an indoor recreation center in 2013.
“I can tell you this, the tax is not for a recreation center,” Wagner said. “It is for the basic needs to keep the park operating for the next 20 years.”
The district incorporated opinions from several sources while writing the ballot question, including accountants, lawyers, bond writers, “experienced election people” and the district’s board of directors, Wagner said.
Open space programs in Colorado have different approaches on presenting spending plans in ballot questions. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails included spending percentages for land, trails and maintenance when it went to voters in 1990 for authorization of a property tax. The percentages have remained in three reauthorization ballot questions, the most recent in 2016.
“It was put in (originally) to create greater public confidence in what they were going to get,” said Dale Will, a former executive director of the open space program and current director of special projects and acquisitions. “It ensures the public that they were going to get the bases covered.”
He stressed that he wasn’t judging Crown Mountain’s ballot question wording one way or another. Pitkin County officials just felt they needed to include the spending percentages to satisfy their constituency.
Pitkin County amended the percentages in its most recent ballot question two years ago. The allocation of revenue for acquisitions of property was switched from 75 to 65 percent. The percentage of revenue set aside for trails and trailheads was left at 20 percent and the percentage for maintenance of facilities was increased from 5 to 15 percent.
The exact percentages might not be followed every year but are balanced over time, Will said. The public can look at the spending history in the open space program’s budget materials.
Other successful open space programs in Colorado don’t put specific spending percentages in their ballot questions. Jefferson County, for example, is devoting a majority of its current funds into the construction of the Clear Creek Trail, Will noted.
If Crown Mountain’s tax hike is approved, it would bring in an estimated $695,000 extra revenue annually for the district. The tax would take affect in the 2019 bill. It would add about $14 annually for every $100,000 of actual value for a house and about $57 per year for every $100,000 of value for commercial property.
The district said its existing tax isn’t enough to support the park, which has grown since its founding in 2002. The immensely popular park accommodates roughly 260,000 visits per year for everything from dog walking to lacrosse tournaments and Little League baseball games.
If the park tried to follow its existing asset management plan on existing revenue, it would be $1.5 million in the red by 2023 trying to maintain and replace its aging assets, according to a FAQ prepared by the district.
“After 16 years, the park is dealing with a variety of natural aging to its infrastructure,” the FAQ said. “The district simply needs to fund this park appropriately so it can remain a great community asset for years to come.”
Ballots will be mailed in late April.
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The property tax overcharge refunds are in the hands of Basalt residents. A new civic organization is cranking up its campaign to have recipients contribute some or all of their refunds to the Basalt Gives effort to benefit midvalley-serving nonprofits.