Voters asked to raise taxes for rivers fund |

Voters asked to raise taxes for rivers fund

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

PITKIN COUNTY ” Pitkin County voters are being asked to raise the county’s sales tax rate to pay for a new county program, called the “Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund,” intended to protect, preserve and perhaps expand local water quality and quantities.

The request is coming in the form of Referendum 1A, placed on the Nov. 4 ballot by the county commissioners in August.

The referendum calls for raising the county’s sales tax rate from its current level of 3.5 percent to 3.6 percent, an increase of one-tenth of 1 percent, or a dime on every $100 purchase of goods in the county.

If approved by the electorate, the tax, which is to be dedicated to what will be a newly created water fund, is expected to raise up to $1 million in revenues in its first year.

That money is to be used strictly for:

– Maintaining and improving water quality and quantity within the Roaring Fork River watershed, which includes the tributaries up Castle, Maroon, Hunter, Snowmass and Woody creeks, as well as the Fryingpan and Crystal River valleys;

– purchasing, leasing or otherwise obtaining new water rights, and defending existing water rights in court;

– working on minimum stream-flow issues, in cooperation with nonprofits, state and federal agencies;

– promotion of water-conservation methods;

– and building or improving “capital facilities that contribute to the objectives listed above,” according to the language of the question.

While the proposed fund has raised some eyebrows regarding whether the timing is right to be raising taxes ” given the national economic slump, the bedeviled housing market and the ailing stock markets ” it has not generated any organized opposition, at least not to the knowledge of Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder Janice Voss Caudill.

“There were no opposing statements sent in for the TABOR brochure,” said Caudill on Tuesday, referring to a recently published compendium of ballot information, which by state law must contain any statement about proposed taxation question, pro and con. The deadline for submitting such statements was Sept. 19.

There was a “pro” statement, however, submitted by the county commissioners and staff, according to Tom Oken of the county treasurer’s office. The statement notes that a citizens committee is to be named to “guide the spending of the Healthy Rivers and Streams Fund to ensure wise investments,” similar in nature to the county’s Open Space and Trails Board.

At the same time taxpayers are being asked to approve a new sales tax, the county is requesting authority to take on new debt in the form of revenue bonds, to the tune of up to $12 million, with maximum repayment of $12 million. The bonds are to be paid off using proceeds from the new sales tax “and other legally available funds,” according to the ballot question.

Currently, the county has about $27.3 million in bonded indebtedness, with a maximum repayment cost of $42.1 million due.

If the new tax is passed, it will put the Town of Snowmass Village, which currently assesses an aggregate sales tax rate of 9.9 percent, at a combined tax rate of 10 percent. The aggregate sales tax rate includes Pitkin County’s 3.5 percent tax, as well as the state of Colorado’s 2.9 percent tax.

In Aspen, if passed, the new water fund tax would take the aggregate sales tax up to 8.6 percent.

Oken said there is no longer any maximum limit to the sales tax rates that can be assessed by cities and counties. The old 7 per cent limit, he said, was repealed by a recent legislative act.

But, he conceded, there remains a popular perception of a ceiling of acceptability at 10 percent, despite the fact that some shopping centers have exceeded that level.

He noted that at Glenwood Meadows, a relatively new shopping mall in Glenwood Springs, the aggregate rate is 10.7 percent. And, he said, not too long ago he was at a mall in Boulder where the sales tax rate was 12.7 percent.

As for the local taxpayers’ level of tolerance for higher sales taxes, Oken said, “I guess we’ll see in November.”

At a recent candidates forum for open county commissioner seats, the water fund tax got the support of every candidate but former Commissioner Shellie Roy, who is running against incumbent Michael Owsley and called the water fund “well intended, but it’s useless.”

She was critical of the fact that it would bring county sales taxes in general closer to the 10 percent level, and said that the county has “no standing” in water courts or the market for water rights.

According to Roy, the county will not have the opportunity to buy senior rights, indicating that the tax hike would be ineffective in helping the county accumulate water rights.

But candidate Dee Malone of Redstone, a biologist and ecologist running against George Newman of Emma to take the seat being vacated by incumbent Dorothea Farris, said that is not necessarily true.

She said senior water rights in the Colorado River drainage do come up for sale occasionally.

An example, Malone said, would be water rights linked to ranches in the far western parts of Garfield and Mesa counties that date back to the late 1800s.

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