Aspen Times Editorial: Local questions seek to combat expected Gallagher effects
This year’s midterm election is filled with questions for local voters to decide if taxes should be raised or mill levies adjusted. Dealing with the effects of the Gallagher Amendment has many districts scrambling to fill budget voids expected when the adjustments are made based on property values.
From Colorado Mountain College to fire districts, Gallagher is likely to put a strain on many agencies. We are for helping these districts operate at a reasonable budget, as long as they have shown the right approach and have their plans in place. For the most part, we support the added taxes or adjustments to maintain a level service the community deserves.
Some of the other issues facing local voters are moving the municipal Election Day to the first Tuesday in March in an effort to get more people to return ballots. In Snowmass, voters are deciding whether to add a 5 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana when shops start to open in 2019. Those both are issues we support.
Ballot Issue 7A (RFTA property tax) YES/For
We wondered why the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority didn’t look to max out its sales tax capability in all eight of its member jurisdictions to solve its financial conundrum rather than ask for a new property tax.
Member jurisdictions can dedicate up to 1 percent of its sales tax to RFTA; only Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are maxed out. We figured Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County could produce more funds for the regional transit agency with an increased sales tax.
However, after talking to transportation officials, we were convinced that would be a political football and renew fights over whether everyone was paying their fair share.
The property tax request is a tough enough sell. The RFTA board of directors adjusted their numbers this summer, lowering the request to a 2.65 mill levy property tax, which shows they were sensitive to the public’s sticker shock.
RFTA says it must find a new source of revenue to replace buses, maintain current levels of service and make some strategic additions. While we wish the upper Roaring Fork Valley would house more of its workers to reduce the pressure of busing in help from downvalley communities, the problem isn’t RFTA’s fault.
We don’t want property taxes to become an ATM for agencies, but in this case the nominal increase in taxes goes to strengthen a system many of us use and appreciate.
Ballot Issue 7D (CMC mill levy adjustment) YES/For
Colorado Mountain College is not asking for a tax increase per se, but rather the ability to adjust given the state of funding every two years based on the Gallagher Amendment. There will be (How about: We expect) total transparency when the trustees need to adjust the mill levy, and it will only be to make up potential losses in revenue because of the amendment.
The role that CMC plays is invaluable in our valley and the other mountain towns where it has campuses. It trains our first-responders, teachers and other skilled trades to make our communities stronger. We don’t want budget struggles and a potential tuition increase that keeps people from enrolling, and in turn hurting some of the work force we need to strengthen.
Ballot Issue 7F (Basalt and Rural Fire protection mill levy adjustment) YES/For
The fire district, which spans parts of Pitkin and Eagle counties, isn’t seeking a property tax increase. Instead, it’s asking for the power to adjust its mill levy so it keeps its revenue stable. Because of the mechanizations of the Gallagher Amendment to the Colorado Constitution, the district is looking at a $279,000 decrease in revenue by 2020 if the mill levy isn’t adjusted to keep revenue the same.
That is a sound investment in a district that provides both fire protection and emergency medical services. The volunteers and career first responders have proven their mettle time and again, most visibly during the Lake Christine Fire.
Ballot Issue 1A (Pitkin County healthy community fund) YES/For
This request to continue the dedicated property tax for the Healthy Community Fund is an easy one to say “yes” to. We continue to support the good things they do and this important fund needs to be strengthened even more.
Mental health and substance abuse are critical issues facing our community right now and we need to continue to give them the funds and attention they deserve.
Ballot Question 2A (Change Municipal Election Day) YES/For
Any attempt to get more people to the ballot box we fully support. The group supporting this effort feels that municipal elections in March before the ski season ends means more people in town who will go to the polls, or return ballots.
We have challenged Aspen Citizens for Democracy to step forward after, say, three election cycles if we see a decrease in voter turnout to petition to move the election back to May, and they have accepted.
The changes worth noting also mean petitioning would be in December, not February. Also, any runoffs would be held in April.
Ballot Question 2B (Revenue bonds without vote) NO/Against
This question asks to amend the charter to allow the city’s enterprise funds, namely its electric and water utilities that collect revenue from customers, to issue revenue bonds without voter approval.
We think it’s best for citizens to keep whatever control it can over government spending, so voting against this measure will ensure that.
Ballot Question 2C (Grant of franchise) YES/For
This question asks for an amendment to the city charter that would allow City Council to approve a franchise agreement instead of having that power rest with the electorate.
As voters, we don’t need to be bothered with complicated franchise agreements; that’s why we elect representatives. Let’s allow our democratic form of government go to work on this one. Vote “yes” and free us from having to understand 100-page legal documents.
Ballot Question 2D (City office space location) Option B
This is perhaps the most discussed and most difficult decision for our board to come to, especially since we previously said the city should move on the building across from the current City Hall and get things moving.
That said, we are reversing that previous stance and move toward a building at Rio Grande Place (Option B). In light of the appraisals that have come out since our previous stance for the Hopkins Avenue building (Option A), we feel that our change of mind comes down to being fiscally responsible stewards of taxpayers’ money. Those appraisals come in up to $7.5 million lower than the asking price.
In our democratic system on the board, the majority felt we should support Option B, which is having a new office built at Galena Plaza. When we think about the city paying HOA dues and rent for the long-term, it doesn’t seem right when they have suitable land that they own to build on.
This is an advisory vote, which means Aspen City Council could go against the voters’ choice. However, that would likely reinstitute a lawsuit previously brought by citizens. Whatever the outcome, the city needs to listen to the community.
Ballot Issue 6A (Aspen Fire tax) NO/Against
It is hard to not support funding for fire districts, but we feel there are too many unknowns about the exact use of this money in the ballot language.
We want to do everything we can to support our local first responders, but this request feels rushed and not fully developed. We think fire leaders are on the right track. However, in looking at the requests and doing the math, the ask is bigger than the need. The proposed tax would bring in more than double the current budget.
We urge fire officials take a step back and put together a solid plan that carefully outlines where that $55 million would go over the next 20 years (even with the idea of reimbursing the taxpayers if there is a surplus from this proposed tax).
We also understand from the numbers we reviewed that the housing units are in excess of $1 million each and no clear direction on how many are needed for current volunteers or what will be done with the units that aren’t taken by a volunteer.
The department is going to be in the red by 2021 because of capital needs and the potential effects of Gallagher, we fully recognize that. But let’s get this right and fine-tuned, and we will be all for it in the future — even next year.
Ballot Issue 2E (5 percent retail marijuana sales tax) YES/For
Snowmass has finally put an end to its yearslong debate on recreational marijuana sales and the first shops should open this spring. On the ballot for Snowmass voters is whether there should be an additional 5 percent city tax on those sales.
This is not an unreasonable request and certainly won’t send customers to Aspen just because of an additional $5 on a $100 purchase. It is expected to generate an estimated $400,000 per year that the town officials can find good use for.
The Aspen Times editorial board consists of the publisher, editor and members of The Aspen Times staff.
Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to reflect a correction in Question 6A. Because of a reporting error, the amount of revenue that 6A would raise over 20 years has been reported incorrectly. If approved, 6A would raise $54.8 million over 20 years, with $3.3 million in the first year and then a mill levy of 1.325 which would equate to about $51.5 million over 19 years.
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A look at the update numbers for Pitkin County only results as of Wednesday. Pitkin County Clerk & Record said there will not be another update until the finals numbers are sent to the state within eight days of the election.