RFTA board waffles on tax question | AspenTimes.com

RFTA board waffles on tax question

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Roaring Fork Transit Authority may be facing financial problems that threaten to kill the valleywide bus system, but the people in charge of overseeing it remain unable to agree on a plan to address the crisis.

Elected representatives on RFTA’s board of directors from Pitkin County, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Glenwood Springs voted Thursday to ask valley residents for a sales tax increase in November. But the proposal died because of lack of support from their colleagues from Aspen and Carbondale.

Although the vote was 4-2 in favor, the proposal needed support from a “super-majority,” or five members. Eagle County’s representative wasn’t at the meeting.

Without a cash infusion RFTA will need drastic cuts in service to balance its books starting next year, according to RFTA Finance Director Heather Copp. A staff memo suggested buses could only run between 6 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. between Aspen and Glenwood Springs to save money. They currently run past midnight.

Service between Glenwood and Rifle would be cut completely.

Without increases in revenue or cuts in service, Copp projects the transit authority would rack up a deficit of nearly $1.9 million next year.

‘No choice’

All RFTA board members agreed that the drastic service cuts weren’t an option they want to consider.

“If we go for these drastic of cuts without going to a vote, we’re doing a disservice,” said Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA Director Dorothea Farris.

Snowmass Village Councilman Arnie Mordkin said RFTA’s only option was asking for a sales tax hike. “We just don’t have a choice,” he said. “How else are we going to come up with the money? Do it now.”

Aspen Mayor and RFTA Director Helen Klanderud said the service cuts proposed in the staff memo were so severe they could lead to the “demise” of RFTA.

“That, I think, has infinite unintended consequences,” she said of the possible cuts. “People are just going to say forget it.”

Nevertheless, Klanderud wouldn’t vote to seek a sales tax hike in November, despite lobbying by other RFTA directors. Klanderud said more time is needed to study RFTA’s situation ” even though the fiscal crisis was outlined by Copp one month ago, and a thorough analysis of the budget has been performed.

Aspen micromanaging?

Klanderud said her City Council wants to sit down with RFTA officials and take a closer look at the budget. She said the city wants to look at some of the financial assumptions made about sales taxes and revisit decisions RFTA has made. Aspen may also come up with proposals for service cuts that aren’t as severe as those proposed by the RFTA staff, according to Klanderud.

Mordkin accused the Aspen council of trying to micromanage. All the jurisdictions that contribute funds to RFTA want to run the bus service, Mordkin noted. He wants the entities to set policy but leave operations to the RFTA staff.

“That’s not the city of Aspen’s job,” he said. “That’s RFTA’s job.”

Farris and other RFTA directors said time is of the essence in this campaign. If RFTA is going to seek a sales tax increase in November, it needs to make the decision as soon as possible and start campaigning for support. Several board members said they anticipate a tough election, so early campaigning is essential.

“If we do want to go to a ballot issue, we need to get it moving,” said Farris.

Holding pattern

RFTA Directors Dan Richardson of Glenwood Springs and Jacque Whitsitt of Basalt expressed some concern about whether a sales tax hike for bus services would win in November, but they supported the proposal along with Farris and Mordkin.

Susie Darrow of Carbondale joined Klanderud in the vote against the idea. “I hesitate to go this fall,” said Darrow. “My gut feeling is to stumble along for a year and go [to an election] next fall [2005].”

After the vote for the November election failed, the board passed a significantly watered-down version. When the RFTA staff asked if the board’s vote meant it should start working on service cuts for 2005, the board waffled.

The staff was directed to work on further information for a “possible” ballot question in November 2004. It’s possible, Klanderud said, that the Aspen City Council will support a ballot question after it meets April 5 with RFTA officials.

Klanderud dismissed suggestions that another month of uncertainty would affect the campaign. She said the Aspen council will know by RFTA’s next meeting in early April whether or not it supports approaching voters.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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