Pitkin County trims tax levy for open space – somewhat
November 18, 2009
ASPEN – Pitkin County will drop back the mill levy for its open space program next year, but not so far that the program won’t see a jump in the revenues it takes in from property taxes.
Commissioners George Newman and Rachel Richards called Wednesday for the compromise approach – one that they said acknowledges both the current economic hard times and the public’s support for the open space program’s mission.
The program’s current levy of 3.75 mills will be reduced, through a temporary credit, to 3.32 mills next year. The lower rate will generate estimated revenues of $12.3 million for open space acquisition, trails construction and maintenance. Had commissioners agreed to leave the existing mill levy in place, the program would have taken in $13.9 million, up from $10.7 million this year.
Some citizens urged the county to hold the line at the $10.7 million the program took in this year. The Open Space and Trails Board urged commissioners to keep the levy at 3.75 mills and collect as much revenue as possible to take advantage of falling land prices.
The program has the opportunity to nearly double the amount of land it has conserved, based on prospective deals currently on the table, program director Dale Will told commissioners. Another offer came in on Wednesday, he said.
“There’s always going to be way more than we can buy,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield, calling on the county to keep revenues for the program essentially flat next year out of sensitivity to taxpayers.
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“It’s time for some constraint,” Hatfield said. “It’s time to help set that example.”
Commissioner Michael Owsley advocated retaining the full mill levy and letting the program acquire what it can, rather than implement a largely symbolic reduction that doesn’t address the real problem – a tax structure based on real estate speculation that makes it increasingly difficult for longtime property owners to pay the taxes on their homes and land.
“The county needs to say to the state, we’re being destroyed by your tax structure,” Owsley said.
The reduction in the mill levy endorsed by commissioners (Commissioner Patti Kay Clapper was absent) will mean $34 in savings per $1 million of actual value, said Tom Oken, county treasurer.
Mill levies that voters have exempted from the limits set by the state Taxpayers Bill of Rights, such as the open space program levy, have come under scrutiny this year as property owners struggle with huge jumps in property value and the resulting tax bills. The county’s latest property assessments reflect a booming real estate market; values subsequently plummeted. Now, property owners fear huge tax bills based on value that no longer exists.
“If it were not for that situation, I don’t think we’d be having this discussion now,” Newman said. “I believe we have to address that,” he said, calling for some reduction in the levy.