EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - It's been a decade since a slim majority of county voters passed a property tax dedicated solely to the acquisition of open space.
That tax - which raises about $4 million per year - is now a decade old, and nearly halfway through its 25-year lifespan. Still, it's become a campaign issue this fall. This week, the candidates for Eagle County commissioner weigh in on the tax and its future:
Should the commissioners ask voters to re-consider the county's open space tax? If so, should the ballot question call for repeal or modification?
Jon Stavney, Democrat, District 2
When I ran for office four years ago, I heard a lot from citizens who didn't identify with conservation of remote working ranches that didn't provide access. While I have been in office all purchases have public access.
The open space program is a success. Criticism is five years behind the curve. There may be a time to go back to the voters, but that time is not now. We have helped connect citizens with public lands, we have cleaned up blighted properties along rivers in Eagle and Dotsero, and are poised to do so in Minturn. -
In the past four years, we have broadened the appeal of this fund by providing significant public access, especially to rivers. The Colorado River access program has been a great success and is lauded at a state level and locally by those in the fishing and rafting industries as being a long time coming. The Great Outdoors Colorado recently voted to fund $4 million towards that effort.
In the Eagle Valley Land Exchange, will have multiple benefits to multiple partners.
This is a program that has learned. I would support going back to voters, not for an increase in taxes, but to broaden the appeal with funding for trails and for the kind of river enhancements that the Eagle River Watershed Council now struggles to fund.
Courtney Holm, Republican, District 2
Voters of Eagle County approach me on a regular basis expressing their desire to place the open space tax back on the ballot. Open space passed by a narrow margin in 2002 and it's important to stay in touch with the needs and desires of the people of Eagle County. Inclusive government is key to representing the interests of so many.
I enjoy the outdoors - it's one of the reasons I love living in Eagle County. Open space purchased with the money from taxpayers needs to be accessible and many express frustration with how this program has been managed.
These are difficult economic times for many people in Eagle County and priorities must focus on our people and their needs including jobs, their homes, and wisely spending the reduced county revenues to meet the growing needs of the county.
Open space purchases potentially remove property from the tax rolls which decreases the tax revenue for Eagle County and affects the ability to provide core and essential services. Additional costs to maintain that purchased property are not funded by the open space tax.
Voters should have the choice whether this program should continue, be repealed, or it should be modified.
Jeff Layman, Republican, District 1
We can't set a course and charge ahead without stopping from time to time to measure how things are going. Much has changed in the 10 years since the open space question was approved. The economy has slumped. Jobs have evaporated. We've had friends and neighbors lose their homes. Many people I talk to are concerned about the way these funds have been used in the past. Others are concerned that they are now being used to "improve" acquired parcels - something not specifically authorized by the 2002 ballot language. Some think the money generated for open space would be better used for something else, like education or public safety.
It is time to jointly explore with citizens whether the priorities regarding open space have changed as a result of this new economic reality. We should convene public hearings for that purpose. I want to be part of a government that continually includes its citizens in decision-making processes. Transparency, openness and inclusion are the hallmarks of good government.
Dale Nelson, independent, District 1
Initially I was against putting the open space tax question on the ballot for repeal. I believed that we should let the law stand and elect commissioners that will manage the open space program better.
I have made the bold statement that I want to put the "public" back in public servant. If I am going to represent the voters of this county, I need to give an equal voice to those I disagree with and those I agree with. Therefore, I will allow the open space tax issue to come back to the voters.
I suspect we will have a vigorous debate on the open space issue. When the citizens of the county are allowed to speak, I trust they will support the open space program. If not, their voice will be heard and when can move forward.
I believe that on all levels the government has incrementally been taken from the people. In an effort to confirm that the voice of the people is truly heard, I must give those I disagree with the right to speak.
I ask one thing in return. If I am elected commissioner and this issue fails to be repealed, please allow the commissioners to continue their work with open space.
Jill Ryan, Democrat, District 1
Fundamentally, I am not opposed to the open space tax issue going back on the ballot. In a recent letter to the editor, my point was that in listening to residents this summer, I wasn't getting the feedback to do so. I did say that if the general public doesn't feel a service is worth the benefit, I wouldn't spend the money on it.
-As a recap, county residents voted the open space tax into existence in 2002. The tax equals $13 per every $100,000 in residential property owned. According to ballot language, the tax can only be used for open space, and will sunset in 2025. The current focus is public access along the Colorado River and to local trail systems. This is a direct benefit to our tourism economy. Additionally, the program has been able to leverage a $4.6 million state grant, other funding partners, a donation of two conservation easements in Homestead, and management of some parcels by other agencies.
I know economic times are tough. I will continue to listen to residents, so together we can weigh our community needs and the benefits of this program.-