Guest commentary: Basalt’s tax and deficit denial
“I recently participated in a three-hour budget meeting where we tried to cut costs by over a million dollars to keep the town out of deficit spending. I can tell you that Basalt isn’t running fat. We had the unpleasant task of mulling whether we could afford a needed extra police officer, a replacement for an aging snowplow, or a planner to help our overwhelmed planning department of two.”
As if that weren’t enough, town staff “had already made painful cuts to their budgets.”
With those observations in a recent blog post, Basalt Councilman Auden Schendler brought to light the discomforting fact that Basalt is plunging over a fiscal cliff.
Yet many of Basalt’s residents and elected officials don’t seem to accept that the town has a budget crisis.
Consequences are beginning to emerge. For example, two years ago, the town pledged $500,000 toward affordable housing. Yet now that the bill has come due, the Town Council, as this newspaper reported, has no idea how to come up with even that modest amount of funding for a critical need.
Inattention to meeting basic needs is starkly evident in the nature of the ballot measures Basalt is considering Nov. 8. Money for child care? Not on the ballot. Senior services? Nope. More than a million dollars to “keep the town out of deficit spending,” as Schendler cited? Uh, no. Additional staff for the Police Department, a replacement snow plow, or help for the town’s “overwhelmed planning department?” No, no and no.
Instead, ballot measures 2F and 2G ask voters for $8.85 million in tax increases to further expand the existing river park the town already owns. In light of the town’s budget cliff and unmet basic needs, this is a clear case of misplaced priorities. Or perhaps it is simply denial.
Regrettably, the town also is seeking $800,000 in Eagle and Pitkin County Parks, Open Space and Trails funds to help add more park to the existing river park. But accepting county Parks, Open Space and Trails funds requires a devil’s bargain: In exchange for the $800,000, the town would be asked to cede control of all but a single acre of the Pan and Fork parcel, in the heart of downtown Basalt, to Parks, Open Space and Trails, which has stated that it would hold a conservation easement on the land.
This willingness to surrender control of a prized downtown parcel for a pittance demonstrates the depths of the town’s financial desperation. It also helps explain why the town didn’t bother to develop a plan for the park before asking voters for $9 million more on top of the $6.5 million already approved in 2013. Why devise a plan or conduct research regarding the dubious claim that downtown open space will revitalize businesses, when the town’s intention all along was to hand control of taxpayers’ $15 million investment to Pitkin County Parks, Open Space and Trails?
But back to denial: Proponents of 2F and 2G have devised a series of implausible scenarios that magically reduce the cost of the bond measures to insignificance. Even the town, under the heading “Cost to Voters” regarding 2F and 2G, assured: “The town believes it will have enough surplus property tax and Parks, Open Space and Trails revenues saved by the end of 2020 to allow it to pay off all the remaining 2013 bond principal at that time — avoiding the last three years of interest expense on those bonds.”
Those rosy pictures don’t add up. The Nov. 8 ballot asks voters for $8.85 million in tax increases to expand the existing park. Total park tax increases (2F, 2G and the 2013 bond) equate to nearly $10,000 per Basalt household. If the town really thought it would need less, it would ask for less. Besides, to “believe” that it can pay its debt down early is patently ludicrous, given that the town can’t even honor existing obligations or meet basic needs.
Rather than an imaginary “surplus,” Basalt can expect even more tax increases. Park management, marketing and maintenance costs will further burden the budget. And most urgently, basic needs remain unfunded. As Schendler counseled in his blog post, “Perhaps the best bond tax we could pass would be several million dollars to ensure we meet these basic needs — road repair, park maintenance, public safety, affordable housing, child care facilities, and perhaps some money for streetscape improvements or, say, a new skate park, and improvement to other parks (Arbany) and open space parcels.”
Basalt must soon confront painful realities, indeed.
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