Pitkin County mulls tax questions for fall ballot
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN – Voters may see a tax question from Pitkin County – or more than one – on the ballot in November, though county commissioners expressed reluctance Friday to ask for too much. At least one commissioner wasn’t convinced voters would approve anything.
The discussion came at the close of a two-day retreat for commissioners and department supervisors at the Aspen campus of Colorado Mountain College.
A majority of the commissioners agreed that asking for renewal of the Healthy Community Fund tax in the fall is a priority, though they want to gauge public support for the question first. They reviewed options to renew the existing tax, or ask for an increase. The fund, which helps finance a host of health and human services programs, senior citizen programs and other assistance services, is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012.
“I would get that big one off the table now,” said Commissioner George Newman.
Most commissioners voiced optimism that a fund that helps citizens in a variety of ways, particularly during difficult economic times, will pass at the polls, but Michael Owsley wasn’t sure the Healthy Community Fund tax or any other tax measure would see success in November.
“I have a great deal of difficulty with saying we need more money. I’m not sure the support is out there,” he said.
Though funding to repair roads is among the biggest issues facing county government, commissioners generally agreed a tax for roads won’t pass anytime soon.
The roads need to fall into greater disrepair before citizens see the need, suggested Commissioner Jack Hatfield.
“The road question, to me, is not even on the table,” he said.
The county cut capital funding for roads by $1.5 million annually in 2009 to balance its general fund budget. Though funding has been maintained for regular maintenance like plowing, just $400,000 per year remains for major projects like bridge repair and paving on the county’s 111 miles of paved roads.
There may also be a county ambulance district question on the November ballot, but that is still under review by the district board of directors. In addition, design work for a Pitkin County Library expansion is moving forward and a tax question for that project could appear on the November ballot.
The timing of the library question depends on the timing of a potential city of Aspen question regarding the Rio Grande Parking Garage and Galena Plaza. The garage roof, on which the plaza sits, needs repair and the library plans call for reinforcing the garage roof to accommodate expansion out onto the plaza. Librarian Kathy Chandler has argued that it makes sense for the city and county projects to move forward simultaneously.
Commissioner Rachel Richards, however, pondered whether the library project is ripe for a vote this year.
“If this is a ‘no,’ it may be a ‘no’ for all eternity,” she said. “What if you get a ‘no’? What’s your contingency plan?”
Commissioner Rob Ittner suggested a tax question for the library may not pass because citizens already think they have a good library.
Owsley put forth the idea of reallocating existing taxes – reducing the tax dedicated to Open Space and Trails, for example – and asking voters to approve a new tax for another purpose, but with no net gain in property taxes. Reducing the Open Space and Trails tax isn’t necessarily something he’s advocating, he added.
But, Owsley said a greater portion of his tax bill goes to Open Space and Trails than to the general fund, which supports a host of county services.
“Is that a balance? You know, I’m not sure, especially in these difficult times,” he said.
Buying open space is a one-time opportunity, countered Richards, panning the idea.
“I would adamantly oppose that and I would campaign against it. I think it’s absurd,” she said.
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