Open space mill levy may appear on Nov. ballot
Pitkin County commissioners were generally supportive Tuesday of plans by the Open Space and Trails Board to ask voters in November to reauthorize a property tax that supports the program.
“I think the public looks on Open Space and Trails as one of the premier programs in town,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said. “It’s an extraordinary thing.”
Owsley, along with commissioners George Newman and Patti Clapper, all said they’d support asking voters to reapprove the current levy in November. That 3.75 levy expires in 2020 and generated a little more than $11 million in 2015, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock.
Dale Will, executive director of the county’s Open Space and Trails program, also told commissioners he and board members want commissioners to consider permanently reauthorizing the mill levy, changing or eliminating the parameters that dictate how open space money can be spent and possibly expanding the program to include the ability to rehabilitate historic structures on open space properties and manage trailheads that fall on county property but not open space property.
“At what point is stewardship of all our assets not something that sunsets?” said Tim McFlynn, a member of the Open Space and Trails Board of Trustees.
Board of trustees President Howie Mallory said the program has purchased a lot of land in the past 25 years, which means it is now more of a land steward.
“(Managing these lands) is a bigger job than we imagined,” Mallory said.
Newman said the ever-shrinking U.S. Forest Service budget is limiting that agency’s ability to protect forests and agreed that it was time to start thinking about a permanent source of funding to manage county open space lands.
“We need to think seriously about being stewards of these lands permanently,” Newman said. “(We want) to maintain and ensure that this program goes on.”
Clapper agreed and wondered what the program would do if no funding was available. She suggested establishing a permanent fund for maintenance and another with sunset provisions for purchasing land.
Commissioner Rachel Richards said she’d lean more toward authorizing the mill levy for longer than 10 years — she suggested 20 years — rather than making it permanent. Voters often don’t like the idea of a permanent fund, she said.
Richards also urged open space board members to poll voters and find out how they truly feel about the open space program.
“Our friends like it,” she said. “(But) how well are we connected with the rest of the population?”
Richards and Clapper also both said they’d like to see the program have the ability to rehab historic structures.
Will said he’d like to be able to tweak or eliminate the parameters on how open space money is spent because the program’s land-maintenance costs already are at the highest level it can spend.
The Open Space and Trails Board of Trustees plans to discuss its plans at an upcoming retreat and come up with a plan of action for the November election, Mill said.
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