Survey says slim majority in Garfield County would support open space tax
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A new public opinion poll conducted for the Garfield Legacy Project shows about the same level of support, 52 percent, for a county sales tax to fund an open space program as in a similar survey conducted two years ago.
However, when poll participants were told that the proposed 0.25 percent sales tax would cost the average household about $39 per year, support for the measure increases to 58 percent, said Lori Weigel of the independent polling firm Public Opinion Strategies in a report to Garfield County commissioners Tuesday.
Regardless of whether survey respondents said they would likely vote yes or no on such a measure, 77 percent said they were OK putting the question to voters this coming November, Weigel said.
The citizen-led Garfield Legacy Project is hoping to convince the Garfield County commissioners to put the sales tax question on the ballot this fall.
It is estimated that the 0.25 percent sales tax would raise $2 million per year to fund a countywide land conservation and open space program.
The latest survey was conducted May 30 and 31 by telephone with 300 Garfield County residents evenly distributed throughout the county who said they were likely to vote in the November election. The survey was intended to gauge support for the new open space push.
Public Opinion Strategies is the same firm that conducted a survey for Garfield County in 2010. Among the questions asked then was whether residents would support either a sales or property tax for open space conservation and trails.
The new survey results regarding a sales tax mirrored the 2010 polling results, as 52 percent indicated they would “definitely” or “probably” vote yes. A total of 34 percent said they would definitely vote “no,” while 8 percent would probably vote against the measure.
“These are pretty solid numbers,” Weigel said. “We saw fairly broad, widespread support.”
As in the earlier poll, a property tax mill levy to support an open space program was not viewed favorably, she said.
The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percent. That concerned County Commissioner Tom Jankovksy.
“I would still like to see at least 60 percent in favor,” he said of the level of support he would prefer before agreeing to put the open space tax question on the ballot.
Commissioner John Martin said he looks forward to seeing details of the Garfield Legacy Project’s proposed program next month. That will determine whether the commissioners would agree to put the question to voters, he said.
“If we do this, we want a successful question and a successful program,” Martin said. The county has until the end of August to certify ballot question language for the Nov. 6 election.
Martin reiterated his preference that the program focus on preservation of agricultural lands that would keep them in private ownership, rather than purchase of lands for public open space and trails.
During the Tuesday work session meeting, commissioners also heard presentations from Gunnison and Routt county officials on their respective open space preservation programs.
A program similar to Routt County’s purchase of development rights program is one that Garfield County’s commissioners have said they prefer.
Approved by Routt County voters in 1996, the program allows ranchers to voluntarily put their land in a conservation easement to prevent or limit development but keep it in the family.
The program started with a 1 mill levy tax, and was reauthorized in 2005 at 1.5 mills. The property tax generated $2.2 million in 2011, said Jane McLeod of Routt County, who spoke at the Tuesday meeting.
“You have to want to keep it as a ranch to participate,” McLeod said. “Ninety percent of the land in Routt County is ranch land; it’s what we’re about.”
While some in Routt County would like to see a public open space and trails aspect, that’s not part of the program, she said.
Gunnison County’s program, by contrast, does have a parks and trails component, said the county’s GIS manager, Mike Pelletier. But a big focus is still on purchase of conservation easements on privately held agriculture lands, he said.
Created in 1998 by Gunnison County voters, the county’s Land Preservation Fund is supported by a 1 percent sales tax that now generates more than $300,000 per year, Pelletier said.
The Garfield Legacy Project board and its partners, including the Trust for Public Land and the Aspen Valley Land Trust, will refine plans for the proposed Garfield County program over the next few weeks. A follow-up work session will be scheduled with county commissioners sometime in July.
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