Not as simple as it looks
August 2, 2002
Su Lum’s rather glib analysis of the county’s fiscal predicament (Aspen Times, July 31) overlooks the very real evidence that our local economy faces serious, long-term challenges. She also unfairly characterizes staff reductions, apparently unaware that almost all staff reductions have been in supervisory, managerial positions, not direct customer service areas.
While I agree with her that current events contribute to our revenue shortfalls, the extraordinary sales tax growth that has kept county property taxes extremely low is being eroded by long-term changes in the local population base and character of our visitors.
Local residents pay about 60 percent of sales tax collected. The local population base, especially in neighborhoods like Su Lum’s East End of Aspen, is declining and aging. Census data for the years 1990 and 2000 shows that three neighborhoods in the East and West ends of Aspen showed population declines ranging from 3 percent to 16 percent in spite of affordable housing projects in those areas. The declines are more dramatic among youth and 21- to 45-year-old working age adults
Not far from Su Lum’s residence are entire blocks with census counts of zero, two or three – hardly a “sustainable” local economic base. The 23 blocks in her census neighborhood host a total of 31 persons less than the age of 21, down from 53 in 1990. (www.census.gov BNA 9627 BG 5)
Median ages are rising, the numbers for children and working age adults are falling. That’s not exactly the “messy vitality” or whatever the buzzword the community had in mind for a sustainable town. It’s hardly a surprise that local-serving businesses are disappearing: no locals, no local businesses.
Sales tax revenue is also undermined by the changing demographics of the downtown core, the main tax sources for both the county and the city sales tax. Strong sales tax generators like Aspen Drug, restaurants and retailing clothing outlets like Banana Republic, are being supplanted by real estate offices, private clubs and luxury goods outlets that pay less or no sales tax.
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Ms. Lum also complains (as does Mary Gleason) that the cuts are not “from the top.” And she asserts that we are tightening the noose on taxpayers, not “the county government.”
Both of these assertions are demonstrably false. First, almost all of the nine positions that have been eliminated are from internal services and management positions.
The reductions include the Deputy Director of Building Inspection, the Director of Special Projects, an internal safety coordinator, the facility manager/supervisor, administrative assistants in public works and communications, and the Director of Environmental Health. The positions eliminated were held by skilled workers and most of them had managerial responsibility.
Pitkin County employees have already taken far bigger economic “hits” than the $7 per $100,000 being asked of Ms. Lum and other property owners. On Jan. 1, cost of living increases for employees were capped at 1 percent, rather than the 2.35 percent rate of inflation.
This means loss of about $500 in buying power to the typical employee earning about $35,000 per year. The reductions in staffing also mean many are picking up extra work. Benefits like insurance are costing more and providing less coverage and fewer choices.
Ms. Lum also appears to believe that money could be saved by not having the clerk’s office prepare minutes and records of meetings. She terms these record keeping activities a “service to government” rather than taxpayers.
It just ain’t so. Keeping minutes of public meetings costs about 16 hours a week of staff time. Those minutes are a vital tool for the media and the public to hold the elected officials and land use applicants accountable.
As a former reporter, I know the agony of trying to figure out what happened at a meeting by listening to audio tapes for endless hours. Without minutes of meetings, it is virtually impossible for the public to have a good understanding of the promises made in the past, the arguments advanced and the intentions of the parties to a public process.
For many years a strong sales tax base has helped local taxpayers to enjoy a high level of quality services and a dedicated and skilled county work force at an incredibly low property tax rate.
Eagle County taxpayers pay about $572 for general fund services, twice the $280 Pitkin County burden. Summit County (Breckenridge, Frisco) taxpayers cough up about $932, and the average around the state for general fund support is $1,992 per million in value.
Finally, Su Lum says she can balance the budget in one hour without raising taxes. I’ve been looking at government budgets for 20 years and have to admit I can’t even read the budget documents and make any sense out of them without spending many hours and asking lots of questions. I welcome the application of her expertise and invite her to attend any and all of the meetings we have on the issue.
My fellow board members and I have been working at trimming the budget for years with the assistance of the citizen Financial Advisory Board, nationally recognized consultants and very qualified staff members.
The process has been ongoing and has been accelerated by the drought and 9-11 events. We’ve found savings, made reductions, streamlined processes and put technology to work reducing costs and increasing public access.
I welcome Su Lum’s review and any constructive suggestions she might make and will personally supply her with copies of the budget analysis and documents for recent years if she requests them.
Pitkin County Commissioner