Poll shows wide support for Aspen schools tax
July 13, 2012
ASPEN – An Aspen Education Foundation poll conducted in late June shows widespread local support for a sales tax increase to fund the Aspen School District, foundation President Robin Hamill said Thursday.
The scientific poll, which had a margin of error of about 5 percent, sought to gauge support among city and county voters. At the city level, 59.3 percent of the 167 respondents indicated that they would support a 0.35 percent sales tax increase on Aspen sales to help the public school system. At the county level, 57.8 percent of 380 respondents indicated that they would support a 0.25 percent sales tax increase on Pitkin County sales to assist the district.
“We are very gratified by these poll results because they demonstrate the community’s strong support for our children’s education in the district – support which crosses age, gender and political lines and comes from both those who have students in school today and those who do not,” Hamill said.
Now the issue turns to the question of whether the Aspen City Council or the Pitkin County commissioners will place the item on the Nov. 6 ballot. At a recent work session, council members indicated general support for moving forward with a proposal that would let city voters decide the issue but also suggested that foundation representatives meet with county officials again to see if a countywide question would be possible.
“We are hopeful this initiative will appear on November’s ballot, and that support for the measure will continue to grow as we approach the election,” Hamill said.
A 0.35 percent city sales tax increase and a 0.25 percent county increase would raise roughly the same amount of money, $1.75 million annually.
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“There seems to be kind of even support for whether we do this at the city level or the county level,” Hamill said.
He said the foundation has provided potential ballot language for a sales tax increase to the City Attorney’s Office. The language is similar to a revenue-generating proposal established by Steamboat Springs voters in 1993 and reauthorized three times since.
The survey also asked voters whether they also would favor a four-year “sunset clause” that would force an expiration of the tax unless voters reauthorized it. The city poll showed 56.3 percent and the county poll showed 57.4 percent support for the sunset provision.
A statement from the foundation said that the poll results “confirm the strong feelings our community has about the importance of our children’s education and the need to continue to support our school district in the face of dramatic statewide budget challenges.”
Passage of this initiative is essential in helping the district to achieve its goals of maintaining existing programming, retaining and attracting quality teachers and staff, and staying competitive nationally in such areas as technology, facilities and college counseling, the statement said.
Mayor Mick Ireland said Thursday that a countywide ballot item would be the fairest route – more than half of the district’s students live outside Aspen’s city limits. He reiterated that the foundation should try to make another pitch to the county commissioners.
“As a countywide issue, there are some advantages there,” he said, noting that sales tax money for schools also could be collected in Snowmass Village, Woody Creek and other locations within the county.
If county residents who live outside Aspen “do less than 100 percent of their shopping in the city of Aspen, there’s a degree of unfairness,” Ireland said. “The burden is shifted more to Aspen residents. The entire county should be part of the program, but it’s not my call.”
The county, however, could have a revenue-generating measure of its own on the fall ballot: a property tax hike to help pay for construction and operating costs associated with a $10 million, two-story addition to its library on North Mill Street. Commissioners have yet to act on a ballot measure; meanwhile, the city is weighing the county’s land-use application for the project.
Ireland pointed out that if a countywide property-tax increase for the library is approved, city property owners will be generating a lot of the money.
“We don’t have a city-only library tax, do we?” he asked.
In the big picture, Ireland expressed general support for a sales tax increase to help local schools.
“It’s a hard choice, but I think you have to do it,” he said. “I don’t think you can count on the state to properly fund education.”
Hamill said that while he recognizes that a city-only sales tax is not a perfect remedy to the dilemma, it’s not as overbearing on city residents as some people might think because Aspen is a shopping destination for county residents as well as tourists.
The district’s projected budget deficits from now until 2016 fall into a range of $660,000 to $980,000 annually, depending on the year. Aspen School District Superintendent John Maloy has said that through selective cuts, the district has been able to stave off the types of massive layoffs and program changes to which other districts across the state have resorted, but such measures are no longer doable.