Pitkin County mulls bumping up open space tax levy
September 6, 2011
ASPEN – Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials would like to see the program’s mill levy restored to the full amount authorized by voters, but county commissioners weren’t willing to endorse the boost in tax collection on Tuesday.
After a lengthy closed-door meeting with the Open Space and Trails board of trustees – one that likely included discussion of potential open space acquisitions – most commissioners said they want more time to decide what to do with the mill levy that supports the program.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield, however, gave the suggestion to boost the mill levy back up after a two-year reduction to provide tax relief a thumbs-down.
“The world out there isn’t really much better,” he said. “Times are still tough. It’s only nickels and dimes maybe for some people, but the little guy still feels it, too.”
“It might be valuable to look at some moderation,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards, indicating that she’d like to consider something between the level of the mill levy as it’s currently set and the full amount voters authorized the program to collect.
Voters have OK’d a property tax rate of 3.75 mills for the open space program, but when property values shot up, commissioners cut the rate to 3.351 mills, effective in 2010 and 2011. The program collected about $12.4 million in gross revenues this year, as opposed to the $14 million it would have collected with the full mill levy in place, according to Tom Oken, county treasurer.
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Now that property values have dropped about 25 percent, the current levy would produce about $9.3 million in gross revenues next year. If the levy goes back up to 3.75 mills, the program would collect a projected $10.5 million next year – up about 1 percent from what the program collected in 2009, before the mill levy was reduced, according to Oken.
“As staff, we recommend that’s where the county should be headed,” he said.
“For 18 of the last 20 years, we have collected the entire open space mill,” said Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director. He argued against reducing the tax levy two years ago, suggesting the higher revenues would give the county greater buying power at a time when property values were falling. Usually, tax revenues lag behind rising values, he said at the time.
Open Space and Trails tax revenues go to the acquisition, improvement and maintenance of open space and trails, as well as paying off existing debt and paying the program’s administrative costs, including staff expenses.
Commissioner Rob Ittner said he’d like to look at the program’s untapped borrowing potential – which would allow it to borrow money to fund acquisitions if it doesn’t have sufficient cash on hand – when he considers how to set the program’s mill levy for 2012.
Commissioner George Newman wanted to know what expenses are in the offing in terms of additional staff and other endeavors.
No new staff is planned in 2012, Will said. The program’s work next year will include a master plan for the Rio Grande Trail. A recent user survey indicates public support for paving the unpaved stretch below Aspen as well as new or improved connections to the trail – from the Aspen Business Center, Brush Creek and Lazy Glen areas, for example.
Commissioners expect to discuss the program’s mill levy again; the decision weighs into the Open Space and Trails budget for 2012.