Pitkin County mulls property tax measures
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
REDSTONE – Pitkin County commissioners want to sit down in citizens’ kitchens and chat in order to find out what they want out of their county government – and what they’re willing to pay for.
Commissioners, contemplating taking property tax measures to a populace that is struggling with soaring property tax bills, unemployment and a soured economy, agreed Thursday that touching base with their constituents should be the first step.
Long-term budget projections that suggest the county could be operating in the red to the tune of $1.8 million in a decade has the government contemplating additional revenue sources. The county’s sales tax revenue has taken a big, recession-fueled hit, and no one is sure when it will recover, or to what extent.
Among the most pressing issues is roads and bridges, funded from the county’s general fund. The expenditure for capital projects on roads and bridges was cut to $400,000 in 2010 to help balance the county budget. That sum is down from what had been about $1.8 million to $1.9 million in annual spending.
At a one-day retreat Thursday in Redstone, commissioners mulled both the timing of proposing a property tax to fund roads and bridges, and its chances of passage. They weren’t sure on either question, but agreed talking to county residents should be the first step.
“The community dialogue is critical,” said County Manager Hilary Fletcher.
Also up for discussion in terms of property taxes is asking voters to increase the modest, existing mill levy for the county’s ambulance fund and renewing – or possibly upping – the tax that supports the Healthy Community Fund, currently set to expire in 2012.
The latter tax helps fund health and human services, including senior services, youth programs and local nonprofits.
“We cannot allow that fund to lapse,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper.
Allowing it to expire is one of the options the county needs to offer voters, countered Commissioner Michael Owsley.
The Healthy Community Fund, last reauthorized in 2005 with strong voter support, has a current levy of 0.394 mills, which generates about $1.4 million annually. Commissioners discussed asking voters to reauthorize the tax for 10 years and, possibly in a separate question, asking them to raise the tax, as well.
The ambulance tax of 0.138 mills generates about $373,000 annually, but the district runs at an average annual deficit of about $300,000.
Some commissioners said they suspect voters would see the value in reauthorizing the Healthy Community Fund tax and upping the ambulance fund tax, but they wouldn’t term any tax posed on the November 2010 ballot a slam dunk.
County property owners have received tax bills this year that, on average, are up 15 to 30 percent, said Treasurer Tom Oken.
“In the treasurer’s office, we’re getting a lot of irate calls about this,” he said. “Do you want to be asking for any kind of property tax?”
But when the assessor sends out notices of revaluation in May 2011, values may drop by as much as 20 to 30 percent, based on what’s currently happening in the real estate market, Oken said. Property owners may actually see a slight decrease on the tax bill they receive in January 2012, which may mean they’re more amenable to a tax question in the fall of 2012, he said.
Most commissioners appeared to favor proposing the ambulance and Health Community Fund questions this year and in 2011, and – maybe – asking about a road tax in 2012, depending on what they hear from citizens.
A proposed tax to build new county facilities won’t be asked anytime soon, they agreed.
Brian Pettet, director of public works, said he favors seeking a 1.472 mill levy for capital projects on the county’s roads and bridges. It would generate an estimated $5.4 million annually, and result in a tax payment of $12 per $100,000 of value for a residential property.
Deterioration of county roads – which starts at the base of asphalt roads and works its way to the surface – will become noticeable this year, Pettet said. Cracked pavement is a sign of problems that ultimately require the stripping of a road to its base layer and rebuilding it from there. He likens road maintenance – paving or chip-and-seal coating – to changing the oil in a vehicle. Regular oil changes are key to preventing a significant expenditure when the engine fails.
Until the public is convinced the roads can’t be funded in some other way, a road tax will be difficult to pass, Commissioner Rachel Richards predicted.
In 2008, Pitkin County voters narrowly rejected a proposed property tax that would have dedicated funds to county roads over the next 20 years by increasing the property tax rate by two mills.
First, voters will need to understand that reducing operating hours and cutting staff isn’t enough to counter the shortfall, Richards said.
“Do you need every employee you have now? That’s going to be the biggest thing out there. Can you cut your way out of this?” she said. “I think we’re really going to have to involve the public in the budget as a whole – it’s not just about roads.”
The public outreach, Fletcher added, needs to extend beyond the usual groups – neighborhood caucuses and homeowners associations in unincorporated Pitkin County – and reach into the city of Aspen and town of Snowmass Village.
“I think it’s incumbent to reach out to the people we don’t normally reach,” she said.
Owsley said he doesn’t want to educate the public on the county’s financial situation, but rather let citizens educate him on what they want from the county government.
“I’ll go to anybody’s kitchen – no matter how few people are there,” he said.
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