Tax windfall could boost Pitkin County open space acquisitions
October 30, 2009
ASPEN – With the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program looking at a property tax windfall of more than $3 million next year, its board of trustees must weigh the pros and cons of collecting the money or leaving it in taxpayers’ pockets.
The board will review the program’s 2010 budget and mill levy on Tuesday.
The program is among various local taxing districts that could realize a large gain in property tax revenue next year thanks to a significant leap in property values. Voters have exempted the program’s mill levy from state constitutional limitations that would cap the amount of additional revenue it can take in as property values rise, but the economic downturn has made the public leery of escalating property tax bills at a time when residents have lost their jobs or seen their wages cut.
County commissioners have called on taxing districts to hold the line on mill levies and the Aspen Valley Hospital board of directors recently decided to temporarily lower the hospital district’s mill levy next year so as not to take in any additional revenue.
Dale Will, director of the Open Space and Trails program, made no recommendation one way or the other in a memo to the board, but he noted softening land values represent “an unusual opportunity in land conservation.” The real estate market has slowed while the program’s resources are strong – an unusual reversal in fortunes. Typically, the program’s revenue lags behind rising land prices, he said.
“Regardless of what is done with our mill levy in 2010, this window will be short-lived,” Will said in the memo.
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The program’s revenues will decline following the next revaluation by the assessor’s office, when valuations will be based on the current downturn in the market. The program’s purchasing dollars could fall as much as 40 percent in 2012, Will predicted.
“Should the normal real estate inflation begin again then, we will be back to chasing the market on an old valuation, and will likely need to rely on our bonding capacity [borrowing money] as a reserve in that period,” he said.
He also noted the lower costs the program saw this year for construction of the first five miles of the Crystal Trail and restoration work at the historic Emma store. The program is in a period when “buy it now” and “build it now” is a wise approach, Will said.
If the state’s TABOR limit on growth was applied to the program’s 3.75 mill levy, it would forego $3.2 million in additional revenue next year – $2.4 million in open space acquisition money, $448,000 for trails projects and $352,000 in maintenance, the memo said. The savings to a taxpayer would amount to $60 per $1 million of assessed property value, according to Will.
The program collected $10.4 million from its mill levy this year.
Regardless of the board’s decision about the mill levy, the proposed 2010 budget includes two new full-time positions, though county government recently laid off three full-time employees and one part-time worker. The addition of a land officer and recreation and trails planner are proposed, plus office space and computers for the positions. Two more seasonal maintenance employees are also proposed, and two existing positions would move to a higher pay grade to reflect added responsibilities.
The budget reflects $239,328 in expenses for the new full-time employees and almost $80,000 in additional labor costs for maintenance.
The budget also includes $100,000 to continue trail construction and reclamation of the former Wilk Wilkinson property on Smuggler Mountain – open space that was purchased jointly by the city of Aspen and the county.
So far, the two governments have spent $235,000 on the property, sharing the costs evenly. The sum includes work that was done this year to slow the spread of mountain pine beetles on the open space.
The Open Space and Trails Board will meet Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 9 a.m. at the Airport Operations Center at 1001 Owl Creek Road. The budget discussion is scheduled at 10 a.m.