Tax-increase plea taken on the road | AspenTimes.com

Tax-increase plea taken on the road

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

One Crystal Valley resident suggested that Pitkin County ask voters for a much larger property tax increase – hundreds of dollars more – than it is planning.

A former candidate for county commissioner suggested that one way to save money would be to cut the number of commissioners from five to three.

A retired doctor suggested the county halt all residential development until a way can be figured to make developers and new residents cover the costs of that development.

A retired jeweler, Kurt Bresnitz, pointed out that the constant price inflation in Aspen’s real estate market puts an enormous tax burden on retired people like him, even if the commissioners only want to raise property taxes $31 on a home worth $500,000 .

“You can’t even get a chicken coop for $500,000 in this town,” said Bresnitz, who owned a jewelry shop that for decades was located across the street from Aspen’s fire station.

“We are assessed not by the value of our homes, because our homes are tear-downs now. We are assessed by the price our neighbor paid for their homes,” the 53-year Aspen resident said yesterday at a joint meeting of the senior citizens council and the county commissioners.

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“What good is it to me? I don’t plan to sell,” he continued. “I came to live here and to die here.”

Even the normally talkative county commissioners had little to say about Bresnitz’s comments, except that there is some tax relief available to senior citizens. But it was clear they shared his frustration.

The county commissioners have been meeting with neighborhood caucus groups and organizations, such as the senior council, for the last three weeks in an effort to explain the genesis of the current budget crisis and what the future holds.

The county is facing a $1.9 million shortfall this year. The commissioners and top managers have already eliminated nine positions from the county payroll, implemented a countywide hiring freeze and ordered a 5 percent cut in operating expenses.

Property taxes currently account for about 30 percent of the county’s general fund, which was budgeted this year at $17.4 million. Sales taxes account for another 30 percent and fees add the remaining 40 percent, according to county budget documents.

Both sales tax collections and fees, especially building and development fees, have been down more than expected this year.

If voters decline to increase their property taxes, county officials say many more cuts than those already implemented will have to take place.

At least one county department – communications – would be cut entirely, and another – health and human services – would be cut to bare bones. The senior center would lose two employees and all of its recreation services.

Funds for youth organizations and social service agencies that support abused women and others in need would also be eliminated. The recycling program would be reduced or eliminated. Maintenance of all but the busiest county roads would be cut to minimum levels, and a few paved roads would be allowed to deteriorate to gravel.

So far, even the most skeptical voters have been receptive to what the commissioners have had to say about the budget crisis, and willing to consider a property tax increase that would add $31 for every $500,000 of assessed value.

On Tuesday night, for instance, a number of residents of the Crystal River Valley and the Redstone area said they would support a property tax increase to keep the county from being forced to cut services. In fact, several residents said they would agree to pay several hundred dollars more in property taxes than the county is asking to keep the county afloat.

“Thirty-one dollars to me is just one dinner out,” said Royce Fitche, who lives downstream from Redstone. “There isn’t anybody who couldn’t give up a few bucks to keep these services.”

Despite the sympathy, however, there is no guarantee that the tax increases asked for in August and November will pass, and if history is any indication they will fail. County voters have never passed a property tax increase to cover general county expenses.

A hint of the skepticism about county government, however, was present Tuesday.

“I’m not saying I’m against a tax increase, but having dealt with the county on a number of issues, I perceived a level of micromanagement that borders on the lunatic,” Redstone resident Heidi Wilson said. She suggested that the county might not need all the people it has checking out violations of the land-use code and other rules.

At the senior center on Wednesday, more time was spent explaining the tax system and why it has created so much trouble for the county. Neither of the two commissioners who spoke to the seniors, Jack Hatfield and Shellie Roy, were particularly effective in answering questions about county finances, but they may have won the crowd over with their sincerity.

“I understand $31 is tough on people living on a fixed income,” Hatfield told the seniors. “But we have no other choice but to turn to property taxes as a solution to this budget crisis.”

At the end of the meeting Wednesday, senior council president Ken Canfield made his concerns about the potential cuts clear: “I heard what would cut one-and-three-quarter jobs from the senior center – that would be a drastic blow to us.”

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

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