Pros, cons of Pitkin County open space tax reauthorization
The reauthorization of Pitkin County’s open space property tax on the November ballot has generated an unusual kind of criticism.
That’s because most of those who are against reauthorizing the 3.75 mill levy for another 20 years starting in the year 2020 aren’t necessarily against the Open Space and Trails Program in general. Instead, critics have challenged the length of the reauthorization, the mission and attitude of the program and the amount of the tax.
“I love Open Space and Trails,” said Mike Maple, a longtime Aspen resident and critic of the reauthorization. “But currently, the (open space) mill levy constitutes 52 percent of (Pitkin County’s) property tax bill.
“That’s a tremendous amount of money.”
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock has said the open space property tax generated about $11 million in 2015. The cost of the mill levy, created in 1990, is $29.85 per $100,000 of residential property value, according to comments in favor of the tax published in Pitkin County’s voter information guide.
Maple said he’d like to see the mill levy cut back and the open space program focus more on managing the properties they have, because most of the land that would be acquired for open space has already been purchased.
“It completely baffles me that 25 years into a program that has achieved most of what it needed to achieve needs to be reauthorized for 20 more years,” Maple said. “I’m not going to vote for it — not a chance.”
Pitkin County commissioner candidate Greg Poschman also has criticized the program. At a recent candidate debate, he questioned whether 20 years was too long, noting that an entire generation will pass before the open space tax question comes around again. Poschman, however, said he was still in favor of the reauthorization.
Ironically, Poschman also has criticized the program for moving away from its original mission of acquiring open space parcels and into the sort of land management entity Maple advocates.
Other critics have bemoaned what they see as a program bias toward building mountain biking and hiking trails on open space properties to the detriment of wildlife.
Partially in response to those critics, the Open Space and Trails Board passed a policy this summer directing open space to use science to determine which human-use restrictions best protect biodiversity on the more than 4,700 acres owned by the open space program.
A vote to reauthorize the program also will allow open space officials to spend more money managing and maintaining open space properties and to be able to rehabilitate historic structures that sometimes come with open space purchases.
Howie Mallory, a member of the Open Space and Trails Board and an advocate of reauthorizing the open space property tax, said the program is central to what makes Aspen a special place.
“It’s what Aspen’s all about,” he said. “It’s why it’s an attractive place to come.”
In addition to the 4,700 acres owned outright by the program, it protects another approximately 15,000 acres through conservation easements. Some of the more popular open space areas are the North Star Nature Preserve, Smuggler Mountain and Sky Mountain Park.
The program also is responsible for more than 70 miles of trails, including the Rio Grande Trail, Hunter Creek Trail and the East of Aspen Trail. When open space officials first began talking about reauthorizing the mill levy, they spoke of making the tax permanent. They later settled on the 20-year length because it allows the program to form a long-term management plan, Mallory said.
“Nobody likes taxes forever,” he said. “But long-term assets need long-term funding. You don’t buy assets like this and have only a five-year tax and no reauthorization. That’s not good management.”
Mallory said he was caught off guard by the criticism of the program because he thinks of the Open Space and Trails Board and the program itself as transparent and open to suggestions.
“I encourage people to come to our meetings and suggest things rather than make a campaign issue out of it,” he said.
Mallory said the program will still acquire properties but needs to spend more money on managing the lands it has than is currently allowed. He also said he’s “optimistic” that the reauthorization will pass, considering previous voter support was about 70 percent.
“If it’s not reauthorized, all these assets will still be in need of management,” he said.
The open space tax isn’t scheduled to expire until the end of 2019. If it is reauthorized, it would extend until the end of 2039.
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