Pitkin County open space board torn on tax relief vs. spending
November 3, 2009
ASPEN – Stewards of Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Program wrestled Tuesday with whether to provide property tax relief or use a $3.5 million revenue windfall to buy properties while the price is right. They reached no decision.
Two citizens urged the program’s board of trustees to forego the anticipated windfall generated by a huge leap in property values, but some board members pondered whether the public would be better served by a reduction in the portion of the property tax bill that goes to open space and trails, or by open space purchases and trail construction at a time when the program’s dollars can go further.
“It seems to me the vexing problem you have is to weigh the balance – that tax burden against the public interest in collecting the revenue and spending it on the things we do,” said Dale Will, program director.
But Roine St. Andre, a fourth-generation Aspenite and retiree, said she’s considering selling some of her family property in the face of a mounting property tax bill.
“I just would ask you to give a break to the people who have been here for years,” she said.
The open space program’s revenues have increased some 200 percent in roughly the past decade, since voters exempted the program’s mill levy from the state’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights, according to Aspen resident Mike Maple. TABOR limits taxing districts’ annual revenue growth.
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“I don’t think the taxpayers had in mind a 200 percent increase over the last decade in your revenues,” he said. “It’s just too much.
“We as members of the community are not demanding a doubling or tripling of the services of our local government, but our taxes are doing that,” he continued, urging the board to decrease the program’s mill levy to a rate that keeps revenues flat.
Ultimately, the decision rests with county commissioners, who will review the Open Space and Trails budget on Nov. 17.
The program’s levy of 3.75 mills generated $10.4 million in revenues this year; the total would jump by about $3.5 million next year unless the levy is reduced. A levy of 2.88 mills would keep revenues flat. The levy can’t drop below 2.5 mills – a minimum threshold set by voters.
Capping 2010 revenues at TABOR limits would mean foregoing $3.2 million in added revenue. That would translate to a savings of $69 per $1 million of actual valuation for a residential property owner in the county, said Tom Oken, county treasurer.
“If we don’t do it (lower the levy), people are going to be mad,” said board member Anne Rickenbaugh. “If we do do it, people are going to think we’re chumps.”
The program’s strengthened buying power will be short-lived, noted board chairman Hawk Greenway. Revenues are projected to drop as much as 40 percent in 2012, when the next reassessment will reflect the current downturn in property values.
Forgoing revenues means taking from the public the ability to buy public land, added board member Franz Froelicher.
But board member Howie Mallory urged the board to be sensitive to taxpayers.
“Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should take the money,” he said, urging the board not to “abuse” constituents.
Splitting the difference between the minimum levy allowed the program (2.5 mills) and the maximum (3.75 mills) would be a 3.32 mill levy that would generate $12.3 million next year, Mallory calculated.
“This is a very difficult question,” said Rickenbaugh, suggesting she’d be willing to take the middle ground with the levy.
While board members eyed places to trim expenses in the budget, including deferring the purchase of a vehicle and the printing of new maps, they did agree to the proposed addition of two new full-time positions and one part-time worker, plus two more seasonal maintenance employees.
The program has been understaffed for several years, given the growing list of assets it must manage in addition to a long list of potential land deals it is exploring, Will said.
“We will still be lean,” he said.
The proposed 2010 budget calls for nearly $1 million in administrative costs. The rest of next year’s revenues would include $8.7 million for open space acquisition, $1.6 million for trails and $1.1 million for maintenance.