Pitco should start cutting services, resident advises | AspenTimes.com

Pitco should start cutting services, resident advises

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

What if Pitkin County scrapped its plan to ask for a tax increase this fall and just started cutting services?

Would voters appreciate that the county was feeling the same pain they were and making just the kind of tough spending decisions they were?

County resident Jerry Bovino thinks they would appreciate it. And if the services that were cut proved to be a real loss, Bovino bets voters would grant the tax increase the county is seeking.

But that idea has yet to grab hold of the hearts and minds of the county commissioners, who say they would rather give the voters the choice on whether to increase their property taxes or face serious cutbacks in county services and programs.

Bovino met with the county commissioners a week before voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question that would have resulted in a small property tax increase. He was hoping to head off the electoral drubbing the county received last week.

“Mick’s correct – our taxes are dirt cheap in Pitkin County,” Bovino said in response to comments by Commissioner Mick Ireland. “But I think you’re making an egregious error in trying to raise taxes now. The voters are not in favor of this tax increase.”

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His proposal to call off the vote, at least as far as the county question on last Tuesday’s primary election ballot was concerned, came too late. But his reasoning may still weigh in on the commissioners’ decision later this month on whether to try for an even bigger tax increase in the general election this November.

At that Aug. 6 meeting, Bovino suggested the county tell voters that it understands what they’re going through economically, and is willing to make the same tough choices by slashing services, closing departments, scrapping road projects and eliminating donations to nonprofits like Youth Zone.

“Use psychology here,” Bovino suggested. “Go to the voters and say, `We are stressed. We cannot provide the kind of services you want here, but we know you don’t want capricious tax increases. By hook or by crook we’re not going to increase taxes. By our own decision, we’re going to have to cut X, Y and Z, even though we know you don’t like it.'”

Bovino reckoned that once voters see what they’re losing in real terms – free cross-country skiing, programs for youth and seniors, road improvements – they will be much more amenable to a small increase in property taxes.

“They’ll come to you for a tax increase,” Bovino predicted.

Bovino said last week he believes the commissioners can still use his suggestion to their advantage. He said he thinks the cuts need to be made with an explanation from county officials pointing out that they are trying to provide services people need and are willing to keep services in place if they can be funded with user fees instead of taxes. And Bovino believes the county’s managers and elected officials need to say to the voters, “We’re not going to ask for a tax increase, because we know you’re having trouble, too.”

So far, the only county commissioner who appears to be on board with Bovino is Shellie Roy. At last Wednesday’s meeting, she suggested the county scrap plans to pay for the preservation of lime kilns, large ovens used by mining companies at the beginning of the 20th century to extract lime from limestone.

Commissioners Jack Hatfield, Patti Clapper and Dorothea Farris rejected Roy’s call to begin making real and visible cuts in response to the primary drubbing that the county tax question received.

Hatfield and Farris in particular think voters should have to make the choice themselves about county funding. Both commissioners resisted Bovino’s idea, saying they thought it was punitive and cynical.

“I believe you analyze a problem, understand the consequences of your action, or nonaction, and go for what you need,” Hatfield said at the Aug. 6 meeting.

He also noted that the cost of cutting programs like road maintenance and senior services is much greater in the long run, because start-up costs for programs like the senior services center and road repairs after a significant stretch without normal upkeep are considerably higher than maintaining them with a small tax increase.

Farris noted that the county is already making significant cutbacks. Nine full-time positions have been permanently eliminated this year, and operating costs have been significantly reduced. She said the next round of cuts – which will be necessary without a tax increase this fall – will be felt much more acutely by the voters, because they will affect the services and support they’ve come to depend on, like animal control and neighborhood planning.

“To say we’re going to take the money away from the caucuses without asking if that’s what voters want is wrong,” Farris said. “We made an agreement with those groups: To say, well we said, `We wanted you to plan for yourselves but we really didn’t mean it’ just isn’t right.”

Farris echoed Hatfield’s concern on roads, wondering how fiscally prudent it is to allow roads to deteriorate to the point where repairing them costs two or three times what it would cost to simply maintain them.

She said that without a tax increase, every service, not just road maintenance and nonprofits, will be cut.

“It will affect the sheriff, the assessor, the clerk and recorder and the building department,” she said.

“Maybe people want to make it so that if you come in with a building application in June, you don’t look to build until the next summer,” she said. “But I want people to have that choice. Otherwise, you know what that is – it’s manipulation.”