Pitkin County open space board favors tax increase | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County open space board favors tax increase

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County reduced the property tax that supports its Open Space and Trails program two years ago to provide tax relief. Now, with property values down, open space advocates would like the mill rate that supports the program restored to its previous level.

“I think it’s pretty much a slam dunk that you want to return to your maximum mill levy,” county Treasurer Tom Oken told the Open Space and Trails board of trustees Thursday. They did not disagree, though the decision will rest with county commissioners.

Voters have authorized a property tax of 3.75 mills for the open space program, but when property valuations shot up two years ago, commissioners cut the rate to 3.351 mills. The tax produced gross revenues of $12.3 million this year for Open space and Trails; without the reduction, the program would have taken in nearly $14 million in each of the past two years.

Now, the latest revaluation of property in the county reflects an overall decrease in property values of about 24 percent, Oken said. If the program’s mill rate remains at its current level, it will take in $9.4 million in gross revenues next year. If the rate is raised back up to 3.75, it will produce a projected $10.5 million in gross revenues in 2012 – about 1 percent more than the program collected in 2009, according to Oken.

The net revenues available for Open Space and Trails in 2012 would be $7 million if the existing mill rate remains unchanged, Oken calculated. At 3.75 mills, the county would have an estimated Ò$8.1 million in net revenues available for acquisitions and other expenses next year, he said.

Even at the higher tax rate, property owners will see a decrease in taxes paid to the open space program in 2012, Oken noted. The lower property values in the county would drop net revenues to the program by 18 percent next year, compared to the $9.8 million in net revenues it had available for property acquisitions, trail projects and maintenance this year, he said.

Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director, argued against reducing the tax levy two years ago, suggesting that 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.

Property values assigned by the assessor’s office in 2009 were based on a prior real estate boom that subsequently collapsed, leaving taxpayers facing higher tax bills based on values that were no longer realistic. Commissioners lowered the open space levy in response to the situation.

Potential purchases now on the county’s plate warrant increasing the open space tax back up to its maximum, according to Will.

“We’re in negotiations that would total up around $15 million with things that I think are potential, viable projects that I think we might want to complete by the end of 2012,” he told the board.

Though part of the open space tax proceeds go to paying off debt, the program did not borrow money through a bond issue to finance last year’s purchase of the Droste property – a $17 million expenditure that required $10 million from the county, $1 million from the city of Aspen, $2 million from Snowmass Village, $2.5 million from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and $1.5 million to be raised privately. The private contributions, including funding from Aspen Valley Land Trust, have thus far fallen more than $1 million short, but open space officials conceded when the deal was put together that the county would have to cover any shortfall in the private funding.

Though the county initially expected to pursue a bond issue to cover its part of the purchase, it instead essentially exhausted available open space funds and dipped into the county’s general fund. The money borrowed from the general fund is being repaid, with interest, with open space tax revenues collected this spring and the GOCO money (that check is expected to arrive Friday), the board was told.

“An acquisition that’s larger than we’ve done in 20 years, we did without a single bond,” said board member Tim McFlynn. “I think it’s amazing that by the middle of July, on something that expensive that closed on Dec. 27, we’re out of that hole.”