Snowmass voters will decide on expanding taxes to include workforce housing

Snowmass Village voters will be asked in November to approve a ballot measure that would divert a portion of the revenue generated from the town’s separate marketing and lodging taxes to worker housing.

The five-member Town Council unanimously adopted the ballot question’s language at its Tuesday meeting. The council also bypassed a town board’s recommendation to make the ballot question less open-ended by adding language stating 80% of tax proceeds would go toward their original intent — marketing, special events and public relations in one coffer, groups sales in the other.

The deadline for complete and certified ballot questions for November is Thursday. Aspen voters will decide whether guests of vacation rental properties (30 days or fewer) will face a new tax of either 5% or 10%. They’ll also be asked to renew and make permanent a 0.5% sales tax that helps fund open space preservation managed by the city’s parks department.

Ballots go out Oct. 17, early voting beings Oct. 24, and Election Day is Nov. 8.

Snowmass voters who’ve been around a while might experience some deja vu at the polls. Village voters in 2002 approved a 2.5% sales tax to fund town marketing efforts. The 2.4% lodging tax for group sales was approved by voters in 2005. Now they’ll be asked to expand the purposes of the two taxes in the November election.

That’s because any repurposing of a voter-approved tax also requires voter approval, which was one of the driving reasons council members didn’t want the 80-20 split included in the language. Such parameters would limit the current council and future councils from adjusting the taxes’ revenue distribution based on the town’s needs at the time. Council members said they would prefer to have flexibility with how the funds are distributed.

“The challenge I have with a revenue split is that you just never know where you’re going to end up,” said Mayor Bill Madsen. “You’re forced down a particular path. … It just forces your hand too many times.”

Yet without those parameters, “you’re doing exactly what we’re concerned about,” said Mary Blankenau, speaking on behalf of the Marketing, Group Sales, and Special Events Board.

While the current Town Council might be faithful to the question’s overall intent to make marketing and group sales the top priorities for the tax proceeds, Blankenau questioned if that will be the case in 10 or 20 years.

“I just feel that we’ve got to make sure that we put in everything (on the ballot question) so those marketing dollars do not go away in the future on a future board,” she said. “This way it’s very cut and dry — the marketing and group sales and special events all continue and the excess funds, I think it’s great going to housing.”

Part of the ballot question voters will see says, “WHEREAS, it is the intent of the Town Council to utilize these tax dollars to first fund the necessary investment into Tourism, marketing, group sales and special events, and then have any remaining available funds then be invested into Workforce housing solutions.”

Council members countered the language makes clear the main intent of each tax. They complimented the town’s overall marketing mission but argued the unmet demand for workforce housing will worsen if the town keeps getting busier. No distribution boundaries for revenue from both taxes would allow the council to make their decisions based on the community’s needs at the time.

“We’re all on the same team,” council member Bob Sirkus said, “and there are circumstances where some players need more than other players. It’s just the way life is.”

Cuts to marketing dollars, countered Blankenau, would mean “we’re not going to need the housing because we’re not going to have people here.”

Council members said the tourism and marketing community should trust them and future members to keep marketing front and center in future budget talks about the tax revenue distribution.

“When considering this ballot proposal, the Council should commit to maintaining and growing a level of funding that will maintain and enhance the necessary functions and programs of the Tourism Department and allow the existing momentum for the business community to continue forward,” wrote Town Manager Clint Kinney and Finance Director Marianne Rakowski in a memo to the council ahead of this week’s decision. “The existing level of service provided by the Tourism Department should be the minimum level of service that will be continued into the future.”

Kinney told the council the two taxes combined to generate $8.5 million in 2021 and this year are on pace to draw $10 million. Next year is forecast to make more than $11 million.

The town also has a balance of $10 million generated from the two taxes; those funds can only be used for their original intent, regardless of what voters decide in November, he said.