Pitkin County restores full open space mill levy
November 16, 2011
ASPEN – Restoring the full purchasing power of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program won out over property tax relief Tuesday after impassioned debate by county commissioners.
Ultimately, three commissioners agreed to reinstate the full tax rate that voters approved for the program – 3.75 mills – after reducing it to 3.32 mills in 2010 and 2011 to reduce taxes in the face of a recession. At the time the reduction was put in place, property owners were grappling with skyrocketing property values based on a previous real estate boom, and facing a resulting jump in property taxes.
Even with restoration of the program’s full tax rate, it will generate 15 percent less money in 2012 than it did this year, thanks to dropping property values. The program will collect $10.3 million in 2012, compared to $12.2 million this year.
What property owners pay in taxes for the program will go down next year, even with the higher tax rate, noted Commissioner Michael Owsley. “What’s the problem here?” he asked.
Owsley and Commissioner George Newman both advocated restoring the full rate from the get-go, while Commissioner Jack Hatfield called for a continued reduction in the tax rate. At 3.32 mills, the program would take in $9.1 million next year, a 25 percent drop from what it collected this year.
The Open Space and Trails tax is one of the few areas in which commissioners have the discretion to provide relief to recession-weary residents, Hatfield argued.
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He professed a love for the program but called it a “luxury.”
“I look at the future of the program as never having enough money to buy what we’d like to buy when we’d like to buy it,” Hatfield said.
“I don’t think Open Space and Trails is a luxury. It’s part of our life here in Pitkin County,” Newman countered.
Commissioner Rob Ittner suggested the county strive for some middle ground between the full tax rate and the reduced rate of 3.32 mills.
“I think we’re still in an extreme time,” he said. “I don’t think we’re out of the bubble.”
Commissioner Rachel Richards offered the compromise of 3.6 mills next year with the commitment to bump it back up to 3.75 in 2013. Ittner appeared amenable, but Hatfield balked at the proposal if it meant promising a return to the full tax rate in 2013.
The Open Space and Trails budget for 2012, covering the program’s staff and work plan, does not change regardless of the tax rate. In question was how much the program would collect for acquisitions and trail projects, and the program’s board of trustees unanimously supported reinstating the full tax rate.
“There have been some people piping up and saying there are no big acquisitions left. That is not the case,” said board member Anne Rickenbaugh.
“The job is not yet done. There is much more out there to do,” board member Hawk Greenway agreed.
With only Richards and Ittner willing to support a step up in the tax rate to 3.6 mills next year and then 3.75 the year after that, Richards sided with Newman and Owsley in restoring the full rate next year.
“It could have been lower, Jack, but you didn’t want to compromise,” Richards said.
Formal approval of the tax levies set by the county will come in December.