Pitkin County rejects school tax plan
August 8, 2012
ASPEN – A proposed countywide sales tax to fund Aspen schools didn’t get far with Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday.
A majority of commissioners, while acknowledging their support for the Aspen School District and its current financial challenges, said they don’t favor putting the proposed tax before voters in November.
“I don’t think this is easy for any of us,” said Commissioner Rob Ittner. “I think there needs to be some solution to this education crisis. I don’t think this is it right now.”
Melissa Long, executive director of the Aspen Education Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Aspen School District, indicated after the meeting that the foundation would return to the Aspen City Council to again propose a citywide sales tax.
The City Council had urged the group to approach the county, since more than half of the district’s students reside outside of the city limits.
Commissioners, however, raised various concerns with imposing an additional 0.25 percent sales tax throughout the county.
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“We’re in tough economic times,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said, indicating that he won’t support putting a property tax before voters in November for expansion of the county library, either. Ballot measures associated with the library are on the commissioners’ agenda for Wednesday.
“This is a regressive tax, as far as I’m concerned. It really hits the people who can least afford it,” Hatfield said of the school proposal.
Commissioner Rachel Richards suggested that too many entities, including the state, are looking to sales taxes to ease their fiscal crises.
“We’re seeing everyone want to fund everything with sales tax now,” she said. “I’m just concerned that everyone wants to go to the same well in the future.”
Still, Richards alone hinted that she would support putting some measure before voters to support education. She urged the district to ask voters to again approve a technology and transportation property tax (the previous one expired in 2011) so it wouldn’t need to ask for as much in sales tax support. Other commissioners indicated that they wouldn’t support that approach either.
Though the education foundation said it would share proceeds from the sales tax – about 20 percent – with the Roaring Fork School District, or Re-1, because the county encompasses part of the downvalley school district, Re-1 resident and County Commissioner George Newman said he wouldn’t support the proposal.
“I don’t think this is a fair and equitable solution on a countywide basis,” he said.
Newman also voiced qualms with the impact of boosting the tax on purchases in Redstone, a part of the county that is within Re-1 and where merchants are struggling, he said.
Ittner, an Aspen restaurateur, said increasing the sales tax poses a challenge for businesses that are trying to attract and retain customers.
The Aspen Education Foundation estimated that the 0.25 percent sales tax increase, to be proposed for an initial four-year term, would generate an estimated $1.75 million annually. It would cover shortfalls in state funding estimated at about $800,000 per year, plus allow the district to give salary increases to staff and fund a technology plan, according to Kate Fuentes, chief financial officer for the school district.
When the foundation was discussing a tax within the city, a 0.35 percent increase in sales tax was proposed, which was also to generate about $1.75 million annually. A poll indicated about 59 percent of voters would support the city tax to fund local public education.
The current sales tax collected within the city of Aspen is 9 percent, with 2.1 percent going to the city, 3.6 percent to the county, .4 percent to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and 2.9 percent to the state of Colorado.