Pitco to ask voters for change in charter

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Pitkin County commissioners overcame their fears that light turnout in the August primary election will doom any question involving taxes and agreed yesterday to ask voters to approve a change in the home rule charter.

After a 2-1 vote Tuesday, it appears likely voters will be asked if the county’s methods for calculating inflation and the rate of growth, at least as far as property tax collections are concerned, should be adjusted to comply with the state constitution.

The home rule charter is the set of rules, regulations and laws that dictates how county government should be run. Amendments to the charter must be approved by voters.

If voters approve the change, it will mean the county can collect slightly more money. Had the state constitution’s method of calculating taxes, contained in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, been in effect here last year, Pitkin County would have had approximately $170,000 more to work with, according to figures from the county finance office.

The county has already cut its work force by approximately 3 percent and ordered a 5 percent across-the-board cut in the operating budgets of every department, saving a total of approximately $600,000. But with shortfalls in sales tax and fee collections continuing at greater than anticipated levels, deeper cuts will be necessary unless voters allow the county to collect more property taxes.

If the question on the home rule charter amendment is ultimately placed on the August primary ballot – a second reading and vote will come next week – it will be the first of three questions voters will be asked about county property taxes.

The other two questions, likely to appear on the November ballot, involve significantly more money than the $170,000 in extra revenue that would be gained by the home rule charter.

The second question will ask voters if the county can keep approximately $800,000 in property tax revenues that it collected this year but is not authorized to spend. The excess money came in because the county commissioners, anticipating financial difficulties, did not adjust the tax levy downward last fall to fully reflect the escalation in property values.

They intend to ask voters for permission to use the money for roads, some other special purpose, or perhaps to add to the general fund. The general fund pays for most county services, including law enforcement, licensing, administrative services, community planning and elections. If the voters decline, the county is obligated by state law to return the money to taxpayers.

Tom Oken, the county’s top financial officer, estimates that the owner of a $1 million home will receive a rebate of $41 if the question fails.

A third question under consideration is for a general property tax increase that would net the county another $1 million or so. County officials argue that reliance on sales taxes and fees for the budget creates too much uncertainty. Property taxes, they note, are a much more stable source of revenue.

If all three questions pass, the owner of a $1 million home will pay about $100 more in property taxes each year.

Going into yesterday’s meeting, the commissioners were inclined to put all three questions on the November general election ballot. In fact, a straw poll at the outset of the special meeting revealed they were unanimously in favor of putting the home rule charter amendment on the fall ballot.

Two weeks ago, Commissioner Mick Ireland argued that the August primary was not the ideal time to ask the question because the only races involve Republican candidates.

Ireland was concerned that placing a tax question on the August ballot, even one that amounts to an increase of just 9 cents on a $1 million home, was sure to fail.

But at yesterday’s meeting, county staff members noted that two citizen committees that had looked at the situation recommended that the home rule charter amendment be placed on the primary ballot. Both groups thought it would pass easily if it is explained properly. And they pointed out that it would probably be easier to pass two questions in November than three.

County staff also noted that if the home rule charter amendment fails in August, there is nothing to prevent the commissioners from placing it on the November ballot.

Two of the three commissioners present – Patti Clapper and Dorothea Farris – agreed to put the question on the primary ballot. Jack Hatfield cast the sole vote in dissent.