RFTA seeks tax increase | AspenTimes.com

RFTA seeks tax increase

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

For the second time in four years, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority plans to approach voters to bail it out of a financial jam.

RFTA’s board of directors voted 6-1 to seek a sales tax increase from the towns and counties throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. The size of the increase still has to be determined, although the total amount collected cannot exceed one cent in any jurisdiction.

The board must also decide before it crafts a ballot question if it can cut some bus service to reduce the size of projected budget deficits. Board members had differing views on whether cuts should be an option.

“We’re really undernourished,” said RFTA board chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt, also a councilwoman from Basalt. “We’re so lean, we’re starving to death.”

Others weren’t so convinced, based on information from RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. He said ridership fell about 14 percent between 2000 and the end of 2003.

Even as ridership fell, RFTA was increasing its service ” operating buses more frequently and to more places. Some of the increase in service was to honor promises made during a 2000 election that helped fund the agency.

“If we’re decreasing ridership and increasing service, something isn’t making sense,” said RFTA director and Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud.

“We may be literally driving us to the poorhouse,” agreed director and Snowmass Village Councilman Arnie Mordkin.

“I want to talk about the hatchet,” said director and Basalt Councilman Jon Fox-Rubin. “We have to cut something.”

Cuts alone won’t be enough to offset projected deficits, RFTA financial director Heather Copp said. Her long-term financial projections show RFTA is averaging $3.5 million in deficits annually over the next few years.

RFTA went to voters between Aspen and Glenwood Springs in November 2000 to create a Rural Transportation Authority with taxing powers. That district has the ability to impose a one-cent sales tax on most retail goods. The amount of that one-cent tax that was implemented in each jurisdiction varies, so more can be levied with voter approval. No jurisdiction is tapped out yet.

Klanderud said she was concerned voters might ask why the sales tax hike in 2000 wasn’t enough to solve RFTA’s budget woes, as campaigners vowed it would.

The answer, according to Copp, is that the economic nosedive that started in 2001 and worsened with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks drastically reduced sales tax revenues. RFTA was never able to create a reserve fund to buy replacement buses. In fact, it’s scraping just to cover operating expenses.

“We put a finger in the dike, so to speak,” said Copp. “At some point you have to pull the finger out.”

Copp said RFTA probably cannot make enough service cuts to offset the budget deficits and remain a viable entity throughout the valley. Up to 50 percent of the service would need to be cut, she said.

“My feeling is at some point you have to go for a sales tax increase,” said Copp.

Mordkin made a motion to go the ballot in November 2004 with a question that would levy the full one cent in every jurisdiction in the valley. The motion initially failed due to opposition from Klanderud, Dan Richardson of Glenwood Springs and Susie Darrow of Carbondale.

Richardson and Klanderud said they didn’t want to assume that every jurisdiction should be brought up to a once-cent tax. They wanted RFTA staff to analyze how cuts of underutilized service would affect the budget deficit. Armed with that information, the RFTA board could set the amount of a tax hike to seek, they said.

That change earned all directors’ support except Darrow. She wants more service for Carbondale in return for seeking a tax increase.

A ballot question was already planned in Garfield County, which currently doesn’t contribute to RFTA.

The ballot question eyed by RFTA’s board will also dedicate revenues in an amount to be determined for building a trail along the old Roaring Fork Railroad corridor.

Exact ballot wording doesn’t have to be crafted until the summer.

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