Windfall awaits some Pitkin County taxing districts | AspenTimes.com

Windfall awaits some Pitkin County taxing districts

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Some local governments and special taxing districts may feel as though they’ve won a lottery jackpot, given the preliminary property value figures that the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office recently mailed out to each taxing entity.

Some taxing districts could see a gain of several million dollars in property tax revenue as a result of the new, higher property values in the county, though the assessor’s office won’t have a final tally of property values, either countywide or per district, until late this year.

Early numbers put the total value of property in the county at $36 billion, up from $26.7 billion in 2008. The leap in values led to record protests from property owners, followed by a daunting number of Board of Equalization hearings involving property owners who are disputing the value assigned to their property. Those hearings are scheduled to wrap up Thursday, and the assessor’s office expects to provide revised values to each taxing district in mid-October, followed by even more refined numbers in December.

So far, taxing districts have a preliminary estimate of their total assessed valuation with which to work as they plan their 2010 budget and contemplate the mill levy, or tax rate, they will set. A district’s assessed valuation, multiplied by its mill levy, determines property tax revenues.

Taxpayers, struggling with the prospect of higher property tax bills at a time when the economy is mired in recession, may be watching closely as the many districts that make up their overall tax bill deliberate this fall. Some elected officials have called for districts to temporarily lower their mill levies in response to the huge jump in property values. A district could take in the same amount of revenue with a lower mill levy because values are up.

Aspen Valley Hospital, for example, would take in $4.7 million next year if its existing mill levy of 1.280 is not adjusted downward, based on the assessor’s preliminary figures. That’s a revenue jump of more than $1.1 million from what it was to take in this year.

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The AVH board of directors is expected to discuss its mill levy for the coming year today at its 5:30 p.m. meeting, said hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche.

The Aspen Historic Park and Recreation mill levy would generate slightly more than $1 million next year to support the operations and facilities of the Aspen Historical Society, given the preliminary values issued by the assessor’s office. That’s up from $765,886 in 2009.

The mill levy will be temporarily reduced to keep revenues essentially flat, according to Georgia Hanson, historical society executive director.

“We’ve met and talked about it. None of us felt it would be appropriate to take advantage of a windfall,” she said. “I mean, we could spend the money, you bet, but it’s not in the spirit of what the community approved.”

Pitkin County is but a small part of the tax district that supports Colorado Mountain College, but CMC would collect $14.8 million from property taxes in Pitkin County next year, based on the assessor’s preliminary numbers. That’s up from $11.1 million in 2009. Thus far, CMC officials have not expressed an intention to temporarily reduce the college’s mill levy.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program stands to collect $13.9 million in property tax revenues next year, given the preliminary assessed valuation of the county as a whole – an increase in program revenues from $10.4 million in 2009.

The program’s board of directors is sensitive to the impact rising property taxes will have on taxpayers, but no decision to temporarily adjust the mill levy that supports the program has yet been made, said Dale Will, open space director.

“There’s a logical nexus between property values and the open space mill levy. Ours is tied to the very thing we’re supposed to be acquiring,” Will said.

Dropping back the mill levy “would translate into open space projects that can’t happen,” he said. “That’s the kind of tradeoff the open space board and county commissioners are going to have to look at.”

There are nearly 50 taxing districts in Pitkin County; a property owner’s tax bill is typically comprised of taxes that are assessed countywide and others that are collected only by various municipalities, school districts, fire districts, library districts, recreation districts and the like, as well as metropolitan districts that only serve certain neighborhoods.

Most taxing districts have some ability to adjust their rates. Some, according to the assessor’s office, have voter permission to leave some or all of their mill levies at a constant level even if it results in more property tax revenue than state constitutional limitations would otherwise allow.

Those districts, according to the assessor’s office, include the city of Aspen, Aspen Valley Hospital, Colorado Mountain College, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, Snowmass Water and Sanitation, town of Snowmass Village; the Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and Snowmass-Wildcat fire protection districts; Crown Mountain Park and Recreation; and several metro districts – Buttermilk Metro-water, East Aspen, Five Trees, Gateway and W/J Ranch.

Don Taylor, finance director for the city of Aspen, predicted the city’s mill levy will drop, but said he won’t know by how much until the assessor’s office provides a more definitive assessed valuation for the city.

janet@aspentimes.com