Candidate’s opposition heats up debate on Crown Mountain Park property tax hike in El Jebel
3 GUARANTEED BOARD SEATS
While there is plenty of campaign intrigue around the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District’s proposed property tax hike, the race for three seats on the board of directors is a done deal.
Only three candidates are running in the election, so they will automatically earn four-year terms.
Tim Powersmith is a 20-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley and a 12-year resident of Blue Lake subdivision in the midvalley. He said he is a frequent visitor of Crown Mountain Park as a coach of his kids’ baseball and softball teams.
Powersmith, a business management consultant, is running because he wants to help out with the park and recreation district. He said he supports the proposed property tax increase.
“Every community asset needs a capital reserve,” he said.
Kirk Schneider has been a resident of Blue Lake for 10 years. He said his family uses the park frequently. He has boys 10 and 13 years of age who are involved in various activities. He and his wife use the tennis facilities at the park.
Schneider said he supports the property tax hike.
Jennifer Riffle is the third candidate for the seats. She is a member of the Basalt Town Council and said she wants to see if there are ways to coordinate recreation efforts at Crown Mountain and the town of Basalt.
Riffle is opposed to the property tax ballot question the way it is written (see related story).
The three candidates will join board incumbents Robert Hubbell and Bonnie Scott on the district’s board of directors.
An unusual twist developed this week in the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District election campaign when a candidate for the board of directors said she opposes a proposed property tax hike to help fund the district.
Candidate Jennifer Riffle is against the district’s ballot question, which will be settled by voters May 8, because there is no sunset provision or binding language on how the funds will be spent.
“There’s a lack of accountability,” she said.
Ballots for the mail-in election started arriving at midvalley households Tuesday. The sprawling district’s boundaries stretch from Old Snowmass to the Eagle-Garfield county line and include Emma, portions of Missouri Heights and the Fryingpan Valley.
The park and recreation district is asking voters to approve a 1.95 mill-levy increase. It would raise an estimated $700,000 annually for operations and maintenance, replacement of existing infrastructure and to build the reserve fund.
Proponents said the existing tax funds aren’t enough to operate the park and handle capital improvements. The district will be in the red within a few years under the current scenario, they said.
Riffle said the question should have included a sunset provision on the tax hike after a certain period so voters could determine if it should be reauthorized based on the district’s fiscal responsibility.
She also said the ballot question should have spelled out how the new funds will be spent. Campaign literature suggests the allocation of funds will be 50 percent on existing infrastructure, 32 percent on operations and 18 percent reserve funds, but that mix isn’t legally binding.
Riffle said that once she is on the board, she also wants to go over the district’s Reserve Study to evaluate the needs. The district might be able to reduce the amount of tax it is seeking, she said.
Riffle is guaranteed a seat on the board because there are only three candidates for three open board seats. The other two candidates, Tim Power Smith and Kirk Schneider, said Wednesday they support the property tax hike for the park.
Riffle, who also is a Basalt councilwoman, said her opposition to the tax hike isn’t a surprise to Crown Mountain Park executive director Becky Wagner.
“She knows I’m opposed to it because I’m aligned with Katie (Schwoerer),” Riffle said.
Schwoerer is currently on the rec district’s board of directors, but her term is expiring. She is also a Basalt councilwoman. Schwoerer opposed placing the tax hike on the ballot in the current form because of the same reasons as Riffle.
Riffle said she wants to join Crown Mountain’s board of directors, in part, to explore efficiencies in recreation services with the town of Basalt. Some of their efforts might be able to be combined or streamlined.
She criticized the tactics of some pro-tax people who have made the election out to be a do-or-die scenario for Crown Mountain Park. It’s a “scare tactic” that paints too dire of a picture, she said.
That’s not the way Wagner and Nate Grinzinger, the park and recreation manager, see it. They said they are doing their best to operate the park on a shoestring budget as demands increase. The park serves as a practice and contest venue for 20 organizations with 3,500 athletes. Organizations such as Little League, lacrosse and soccer leagues use the park. They pay a fee of $20 per hour, which is “just below the top tier” for the region, Grinzinger said. They feel the youth organizations wouldn’t be able to absorb an increase in fees.
Overall, the park hosts about 260,000 annual visits, including tens of thousands of people walking their dogs.
The park and the recreation district were created in 2002 when midvalley voters approved a 1 mill property tax that raises funds for operations and maintenance and a $5.1 million bond for construction. A separate mill levy was approved to pay off the bonds. The bonds will be paid off in 2023, reducing the overall property tax.
The initial proponents of the park kept the mill levy at a minimum to try to increase the chances of voter approval. Grinzinger and Wagner said that 1 mill levy for operations and maintenance is no longer enough.
Grinzinger said the district’s initial plan was to wait until 2023 to seek an increase for operations, maintenance and infrastructure replacement. The reasoning was voters would be receptive to maintaining an existing level of taxes.
However, the district’s accounting firm, Marchetti & Weaver out of Eagle, advised district officials that they must seek increased revenue sooner or risk going in the red soon, according to Grinzinger.
Wagner said they would prefer to just run the facility and avoid an election but they dove into it “because we know the park is in tough financial shape.”
“We don’t have the funds to maintain the existing infrastructure much longer,” Grinzinger said.
The accounting firm identified the need for a 1.95 mill-levy increase to meet the financial needs and maintain a positive fund balance.
The proposed tax hike would add $14 annually for every $100,000 of a home’s actual value. Once the bond that created the park is paid off in 2023, the proposed hike would be reduced to $5 annually for every $100,000 of a home’s actual value.
“We don’t think that’s too much of a burden,” Grinzinger said.
While the ballot question is spurring debate, nobody questions that the developed park and surrounding open space is a valuable community amenity. The recreation district leases 124 acres from Eagle County. About 30 acres is developed with ball fields, basketball and tennis courts, a dog park, BMX track, walking trail and playground.
“No matter what side you’re on,” Grinzinger said, “everybody supports the park.”
A civil deputy kept her job and was mandated to undergo counseling after Aspen police arrested her in July on suspicion of driving under the influence and reckless driving.
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