Property owners in line for tax break | AspenTimes.com

Property owners in line for tax break

Charles Agar
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Taking a cue from Aspen City Council, Pitkin County commissioners said at a work session Tuesday they’ll give residents some tax relief in a year of skyrocketing property values.

County commissioners faced the option of keeping the mill levy at its current level of 2.688 mills, which would generate $1.8 million more than what is allowed by Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, better known as TABOR.

Without voter approval to keep and spend the excess tax funds, the county would have to rebate it to taxpayers under the requirements of TABOR. Commissioners, however, voted 3-2 to lower the current mill levy to 2.03 until a likely 2008 general election in which they could ask voters to approve an appropriate tax level.

Tuesday’s decision by commissioners to lower the mill levy comes after the assessor’s office raised valuations in Pitkin County by 41 percent. Pitkin County is one of 18 taxing districts that voters have allowed to be exempt from TABOR, a state law that requires government to lower its tax rate when property values rise. When property tax revenues exceed the constitutional limit, those taxing districts, including the county, can choose to keep the windfall, lower the mill levy or provide a temporary tax credit to property owners.

The sweeping tax increases also have prompted local residents and businesses to cry foul, claiming that the tax hikes are too high. Last month, the Aspen City Council voted unanimously to credit property owners .611 mills, which is between a 40 and 45 percent decrease from what could have levied on property owners, who were facing significant tax increases.

In the meantime, the county will have a first reading of the reduced mill levy at its Dec. 11 meeting.

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Commissioner Michael Owsley said keeping a steady mill levy with rising property values is a “backdoor tax increase.”

“I find it repugnant,” Owsley said.

In what Pitkin County treasurer Tom Oken called “awkward timing,” county officials were not ready ask voters for an appropriate mill levy in the most recent election, held last month.

County staff are planning a financial summit in January to determine the local need for roads, housing and staff, and will likely go to voters in November 2008 to ask for a mill levy increase.

It’s not the first time county officials lowered a general fund mill levy: In 1992, the board lowered the mill from 3.37 to 2.688 to stay in line with TABOR regulations.

But not every board member agreed with the temporary tax cut.

“Our tax base is quite low,” Commissioner Dorothea Farris said.

Other counties earn much of their general fund revenue from county sales taxes, Farris said, but Pitkin County officials have consistently opposed large-scale retail and other tax-generating operations.

“I don’t want to be like Anywhere, USA,” Farris said. “I don’t want to see Target down the road.”

And TABOR prohibits any new county real estate transfer tax, Farris said, so the money must come from property taxes.

One resident at Tuesday’s meeting, Michael Maple, was outspoken about a possible property tax increase.

Maple said county property tax rates have tripled in the last 10 years and the burden falls heaviest on people who are “real estate rich and cash poor.”

“Please don’t do that to us, and please don’t do that to our community,” Maple said.

In other Pitkin County tax news, commissioners voted to keep the Open Space and Trails mill levy at its current level.

“I think it is a superb program that deserves our support,” Owsley said.

Voters approved an open space mill levy of 3.75 mills, and open space officials argued that, with limited open space still available, the fund needs to keep up with property values.

Commissioner Jack Hatfield argued for a slight decrease in the open space mill, saying, “It’s not the right thing to do to take as much as you can.”

Maple argued for at least a “token” decrease in the mill levy to reflect skyrocketing home prices, but in the end, commissioners agreed to maintain the current open space tax level.