RFTA inching toward tax hike | AspenTimes.com

RFTA inching toward tax hike

Janet Urquhart

Directors of the Roaring Fork Valley’s bus system appeared to reach general agreement Thursday on the need to propose a sales tax hike in November to shore up its foundering finances.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board voted 5-1 to direct staffers to draft a ballot question proposing a sales tax hike of four-tenths of a cent throughout the RFTA taxing district, which stretches from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. A new tax of the same amount is expected to be proposed in unincorporated portions of Garfield County served by RFTA, where no tax dedicated to transit currently exists.

The RFTA board, comprising elected officials from each of the authority’s member jurisdictions, will take up the ballot measure in June, when it needs to make a final decision. The across-the-board tax hike may face a tough fight from upvalley representatives at that time, as Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County already dedicate a greater percentage of sales tax collections to RFTA and sales taxes in Aspen and Snowmass are already higher than elsewhere in the region.

In Snowmass Village, the proposed increase would push its total sales tax over the 10 percent mark, after the resort worked to cut it back to 9.9 percent.

“I can tell you, we’re not about to put it over 10 percent again,” predicted Snowmass Village Councilman Arnie Mordkin, who voted against the ballot proposal.

Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud hinted Aspen may not support the proposed increase either, though she voted with the majority yesterday to move it forward. A ballot measure needs the support of five of RFTA’s seven-member jurisdictions to put it on the ballot throughout the region.

Aspen had called for the hiring of an outside efficiency expert to review RFTA’s operations before going forward with a ballot question, but the board concluded Thursday that the agency can’t afford it. A proposal asking upper-valley governments to pay the estimated $50,000 to $125,000 cost of the study failed on a tie vote, with the representatives of Aspen, Snowmass and Pitkin County voting it down.

The across-the-board tax increase would generate a little more than $4 million in additional revenue in 2005 and keep RFTA running in the black through 2017, according to projections, said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. The increase is enough to continue work on a valleywide trail and put aside funds for the long-range vision of Bus Rapid Transit, an upgraded, streamlined system.

A smaller tax hike, which foregoes the trail work and/or BRT, received little discussion.

A recently conducted poll of voters indicates the electorate would look favorably upon a tax hike to support RFTA (see related story) and Dorothea Farris, Pitkin County commissioner and RFTA board chairwoman, prodded her colleagues to get behind some kind of ballot measure for November.

“I would rather put it before the public and have it defeated than make service cuts … without having asked,” she said. “I think we need to give people the opportunity to say yes or no.”

The poll results indicate voters throughout the valley would support the increase of four-tenths of a cent. A proposal for a greater increase in downvalley communities and a smaller one in the upper valley – equalizing what each jurisdiction contributes to RFTA – had far less support in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs and could doom the measure, according to the polling results.

The poll indicates an across-the-board tax hike has the best chance at passing, but Mordkin wasn’t so sure. Upper-valley voters might not go for the proposed hike in light of what they’re already paying in sales tax and what they’re already paying toward RFTA. The poll didn’t frame the question in that context, he noted.

“You need to be very concerned about what the political reality is going to be,” Mordkin added, warning the RFTA board not to put forward a measure that upper-valley elected officials wind up campaigning against.

“The political reality, I think, was in the polling,” Farris countered, urging the board to let the voters have a say.

Separate from a ballot measure directed at voters within RFTA’s taxing district, the authority also hopes Rifle, New Castle and Silt will propose a sales tax dedicated to RFTA, along with a proposed tax in unincorporated Garfield County. The poll results indicated there is voter support along the I-70 corridor for a RFTA sales tax of four-tenths of a cent.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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