Tax increase gets support | AspenTimes.com

Tax increase gets support

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Two groups ? one newly formed and one with decades of history behind it ? said yesterday they support Pitkin County’s request for a property tax increase.

Helping from the Heart, a newly formed political group made up of nonprofit groups’ workers and other community activists, will formally kick off its campaign in support of the county tax measure at a press conference this Friday.

And Pitkin County Democratic Party chairwoman Camilla Auger said the party plans to do what it can to support the tax question, which will be competing for attention on an extremely crowded ballot in November’s general election.

Helping from the Heart consists of supporters, volunteers and staff members from nonprofit organizations, mostly in health and human services and environmental protection, that rely to some extent on the county for financial support.

“I feel like it’s very important to our community to have a healthy community. These organizations really help define us as a community,” said Pat Fallin, Helping for the Heart chair.

Pitkin County is asking voters to approve a tax increase that would add $800,000 a year to the general fund for each of the next five years. The ballot question is written so that the extra money must be spent supporting nonprofit groups and county programs in the areas of health and human services and the environment.

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County officials say the money is needed to stave off a major budget crisis. The county is $2 million short of meeting its budget this year, and similar deficits are projected for the next several years.

The health and human service organizations that would be supported by the tax increase work with seniors, young mothers, mental health patients, drug and alcohol abusers, at-risk youth and the developmentally disabled. GrassRoots Television, the Nordic Trail System, Wilderness Workshop and a few other groups are also slated to receive funding from the tax.

Without the tax increase, which amounts to a $4.20 increase for every $100,000 in property value, the county will cut almost all of its funding to nonprofit groups like Youth Zone, which works with at-risk kids, and the Family Visitor Program, which helps young, uneducated mothers navigate the medical and government programs that can get help their infants off to a strong start.

“I’m on the city’s grant review committee,” Fallin said. “I see a lot of these groups coming through when they request funds. They operate on a shoestring and provide services that a lot of people can’t pay for otherwise.”

If the tax fails, the county plans to slash senior services and delay or permanently abandon some road improvement projects. Four employees ? two in senior services and two in administration ? have been notified that they will be losing their jobs if voters reject the tax measure.

In August, county voters overwhelmingly defeated a question that would have added $150,000 to the county coffers.

The Pitkin County Republican Party worked to defeat that ballot question, which would have changed the method of calculating growth for use in setting property taxes, switching from the method established in the county’s home rule charter to a less-restrictive method laid out in the state constitution.

The Republicans sent out postcards reminding their party members of the August primary and urging them to vote against the question, Referendum 1A. GOP county chair Linda McCausland said the party’s executive committee had not decided whether to oppose the November ballot question.

The Democrats have made up their minds, however. “I certainly think we’ll take a formal position and we’ll certainly be in support of it, very much so,” Chairwoman Auger said.

Auger said part of the challenge is getting people to understand that the county government gets a relatively small percentage of the property taxes it collects each year. Most of the money is passed on to other taxing districts, like the Aspen School District and the Open Space and Trails Fund.

Auger said it was unlikely the Democrats would spend much, if any money in support of the tax question.

“We have put every waking moment raising money for the candidates, and the poor little local party doesn’t have money for that kind of activity,” she said.

“But we’ll put in a lot of hours ? many, many hours of work telephoning, helping with a mailer which is paid for by someone else, getting the vote out,” she continued. “While money is always essential, somebody needs to do the work. Half the time that’s more important.”

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]