Pitkin County ballot: water, roads and land | AspenTimes.com
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Pitkin County ballot: water, roads and land

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY ” The financial impact of a proposed sales tax hike in Pitkin County, to pay for a special healthy rivers and streams fund, is akin to “a very small tip for Mother Nature, part of keeping our economy in place, our resort economy,” County Commissioner Rachel Richards said.

She recently attended two water-related conferences in Denver, the Governor’s Drought Conference and the Colorado Watershed Assembly.

Richards is a vocal advocate for Referendum 1A on the Pitkin County ballot, which would raise the county’s sales tax rate by one-tenth of 1 percent, or one penny for every $100 purchase.

The fund is needed to enable the county to go to work on keeping local lakes, rivers and streams healthy and clean, Richards said. The referendum comes amid mounting pressure from Front Range water providers eager to meet the needs of sprawling metropolitan areas, and downstream states trying to squeeze more river out of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“Every drop is being counted,” Richards said of Colorado’s water rights, which some believe were overappropriated when the 1922 Compact was written because its provisions were based on a year of unusually high precipitation.

Between the state’s expanding population, the restrictive effects of periodic droughts and the fact that Richards has been told “there are more water lawyers in Colorado than anywhere else in the world,” there are constant challenges to water rights.

The Twin Lakes Co., which diverts water from the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project to Twin Lakes and the Front Range, beat the city of Aspen in a recent water-court fight over an application for junior water rights on the Roaring Fork, Richards said.

In another example of the sharpness of water disputes, Richard said she learned that it is illegal to capture water that runs off the roof of your house, because that water is considered to be part of the tributary flow into rivers and aquifers.

And droughts may well increase in severity and duration, she said. Recent studies have found that the West has periodically experienced droughts that were drier and lasted longer than anything today’s society has experienced.

“The droughts of 1977 and 2002 were nothing compared to what’s happened before,” she said, “and the potential of climate change making droughts worse is huge … whether it’s manmade or nature-made.”

Aspen, Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley depend heavily on local rivers and streams for everything from domestic uses to recreational activities such as fishing, rafting, kayaking, snowmaking and more, which drive the local resort economy.

“We want to be prepared … to mitigate the impacts of drought,” Richards said, as well as the raids on Western Slope water by thirsty Front Range cities. She said there already have been efforts to reconsider the minimum streamflows doctrine established for environmental and recreational reasons, as a way to pump more water over the Continental Divide.

Referendum 1A has been endorsed by numerous groups and individuals, from the Colorado chapter of Trout Unlimited to the Aspen Skiing Co., she said. Colorado Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village) and Rep. Kathleen Curry (D-Gunnison) also have endorsed the measure.

Some have questioned whether now is the right time to be raising taxes, given the unsettled national and regional economies, but Richards countered that such measures are needed now “because a lot of these things are coming to a head now. Water providers [for Front Range growth and other competing interests] are like rust ” it never sleeps.”

The referendum calls for raising the county’s sales tax rate from its current level of 3.5 percent to 3.6 percent. The new tax would put the town of Snowmass Village, which currently assesses an aggregate sales tax rate of 9.9 percent, at a combined tax rate of 10 percent including Pitkin County’s 3.5 percent and the state of Colorado’s 2.9 percent.

In Aspen, if passed, the new water fund tax would take the aggregate sales tax up to 8.6 percent.

At the same time taxpayers are being asked to approve a new sales tax, the county is requesting authority to take on new debt in the form of revenue bonds, to the tune of up to $12 million, with maximum repayment of $21 million. The bonds are to be paid off using proceeds from the new sales tax “and other legally available funds,” according to the ballot question.

Proponents of Referendum 1B, which would increase property taxes over the next 20 years for dedicated funding for county roads, say the money will actually save taxpayer money thanks to an increase in preventative maintenance.

The question, placed on the ballot by the county commissioners in August, asks voters to increase the county’s property tax rate by two mills, which the county estimates is equal to approximately $16 per year for every $100,000 of residential property value.

For 2008, according to the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office, the county was projected to assess taxes at a rate of 2.096 mills per year for the general fund, and an additional 3.760 mills for the open space and trails program and 1.050 mills for the county library.

By comparison, the city of Aspen has a property tax rate of 5.419 mills, the Colorado Mountain College district at a rate of 3.997, and the Aspen School District was projected to tax at a rate of 6.756 mills for 2008, according to information on the assessor’s website.

A mill equals one dollar for every $1,000 of assessed value of property, as established by the Colorado Constitution and the county assessor’s office. That would mean a home valued at $500,000 would pay an additional $80 per year in taxes if Referendum 1B were to pass, while a home valued at $5 million would pay an additional $800 in taxes.

In comments written by county staff and the commissioners, and published in an election information brochure, supporters of the ballot measure note that current spending, roughly $1.9 million per year out of the general fund, is not sufficient.

A consultant estimated the county needs to spend between $5 million and $8 million per year to keep the roads in good shape, according to public works director Brian Pettet.

In addition, according to the pro argument in the election brochure, the money from the general fund that has been paying for road improvements “now is needed to cover the increased cost of other essential services, such as the sheriff and jail operations, district attorney and courts, and road snowplowing and grading. These services have experienced significant increases in the cost of fuel, utilities, and the recruiting and retention of staff.”

No remarks in opposition to the proposed property tax hike were received by the clerk’s office before the September deadline, and no organized opposition group could be found that is fighting the tax hike.

But Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who is seeking re-election on Nov. 4, has said he is neutral on the referendum. At a recent candidates forum in Woody Creek, he told the audience that it might not be the right time for such measures, given the slumping national economy.

Voters also are being asked to approve the three-way land swap known as the Ryan Parcel Exchange, which has been on the county’s wish list for roughly 20 years.

The exchange, which required an act of Congress to get this far, involves a complicated series of swaps:

– A 35-acre parcel in the upper Castle Creek Valley known as the Ryan parcel, which was purchased by the county and the Aspen Valley Land Trust to protect it from developers, will be turned over to the U.S. Forest Service, as will two 10-acre mining claim in-holdings currently owned by the county. It was “the first home of the U.S. Army’s elite 10th Mountain Division in Colorado, and the historic stone tent platforms built during [World War II] are still there,” according to a historical overview of the Ryan parcel by county open space and trails director Dale Will.

– The county will take title of a 40-acre tract spanning the Crystal River, long eyed for disposal by the Bureau of Land Management, Will said; 12 old mining claims within the Smuggler Mountain Open Space; and the 8.4-acre Means Cabin site, also known as the Wildwood parcel.

The Means Cabin site, which is situated at the entrance of the Difficult Campground area just east of Aspen, is to be sold to a private developer for slightly more than $2 million. As part of that deal, the county will get a trail easement to complete the East of Aspen Trail and fishing access to the Roaring Fork River.

Voter approval is needed because county open space funds were used to buy the Ryan parcel in the 1990s, and the county’s charter required voter approval before any land bought with open space money can be sold or otherwise transferred out of public ownership.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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