RFTA board compromises on property tax proposal for Aspen-area buses
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board of directors decided Thursday to make a case to voters in November that the regional bus system needs a new property tax to stay healthy.
The board reached consensus after a lengthy discussion to seek voter approval for a 3.65 mill-levy property tax. A final decision on a ballot question doesn’t have to be made until August but the board directed their staff and consultants to forge ahead on the assumption a property tax would be sought at that level. If approved, a 3.65 mill levy would raise about $13 million in the first year for the regional public bus system.
“We need to get something passed. To fail would be a disaster,” said Snowmass Village Mayor and RFTA board member Markey Butler.
If the ballot question advances, it will be posed to voters in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Pitkin County, Basalt, Eagle County in the Roaring Fork Valley, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle.
RFTA needs the local funding because state and federal funding for mass transit is drying up, according to RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. Meanwhile, demand keeps growing. RFTA hauled a record 5.57 million passengers in 2017. The agency said it won’t be able to meet existing demand, let alone handle growing demand, without a new funding source.
RFTA currently has a local sales tax but no property tax. Collecting a property tax in RFTA’s member jurisdictions would provide funding for bus replacement, expanded service and multiple projects over the next 20 years, he said.
The agency’s initiative for additional funding has been labeled “Destination 2040. Our future rides on RFTA.” A big part of the campaign message is that RFTA provides the best opportunity for easing traffic congestion.
But arriving at the 3.65 mill-levy proposal wasn’t easy. A straw poll showed the eight voting members of RFTA’s board favored everything from a 2.75 to 4.25 mill levy. That touched off extensive debate on finding a proposal small enough to earn voter support but big enough to shore up RFTA’s funding.
Butler said Snowmass Village voters will likely be wary of another property tax hike after approving three increases last year for water, sanitation and schools. Butler supported RFTA seeking 3 mills in the straw poll. Her council supported seeking as many as 3.5 mills. Anything more could face trouble in the village.
“It’s going to be a hard sell,” she said.
Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA board Chairman George Newman initially supported seeking just a 2.75 mill levy. He said RFTA should keep the request low, show how it was using the funds and maybe in 10 years seek an increase.
“We want to be successful the first time around,” he said.
With the high property valuations in the upper end of the valley, a higher mill levy would likely face a tougher time there, he said.
“For Pitkin County, I think it’s going to be a hard sell to get above 3.5 (mills),” Newman said.
Basalt Mayor and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt warned that voters in the region will likely become increasingly adverse to property taxes over time because so many taxing districts are seeking increased revenue to deal with impacts from growth. That reasoning swayed Newman. He said RFTA should seek the mill levy it needs now rather than going for a low amount and seeking to increase it down the road.
Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron supported seeking a property tax increase at the higher end of the spectrum.
“I see this not as an expense but an investment,” he said.
RFTA staff and consultants have been working for 2½ years on a plan to determine what improvements constituents in each member jurisdiction want over the next couple of decades, how much they will cost and how to pay for them.
The plan, Destination 2040, replaces the bus fleet; provides more evening, night and weekend service; expands parking at stations and stops; and includes projects in each of the member towns and counties.
A property tax of 3.65 mills is required to achieve the projects that constituents in the towns and counties said they wanted in extensive public process, according to Ralph Trapani, a lead consultant on the project from a firm called Parsons Transportation Group. Glenwood Springs Mayor Michael Gamba said voters will likely look at RFTA’s tax hike proposal and ask what’s in it for them. The Glenwood council wants RFTA to seek a tax hike proposal large enough to achieve the projects outlined for the town. A proposal for 3.5 mills would force cancellation of four projects for Glenwood Springs, he said, so the request must be larger.
Whitsitt suggested the board compromise with 3.65 mills.
“I’m a 3.5 person but I would go 3.65. That seems to be the obvious answer,” she said.
Newman concurred. “I’m willing to go to 3.65 mills but I’m not sure the community is willing to follow,” he said.
Carbondale Mayor and RFTA board member Dan Richardson had urged caution with the property tax proposal early in the discussion.
“Do we risk a ‘no’ if we shoot too high?” he asked.
But he agreed to go with the group later in the discussion.
“I’m not going to block it,” he said.
Now RFTA will gauge what voters think of a 3.65 mill levy. Consultant Bill Ray of WR Communications said a polling firm would contact 400 households in the RFTA district during May and June to conduct a telephone survey. The results will be presented to the RFTA board at its June meeting. RFTA will have time to alter the ballot question if poll results are bleak.
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