Are there too many ballot questions?
August 22, 2011
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Chuck Powers is getting some first-hand experience in how people feel about government and taxes these days. So far, it isn’t good.
Powers is leading a local residents’ group supporting a proposed property tax increase for the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District. Like every other government, district and agency in the valley that depends on property taxes, the fire district’s 2012 budget is facing a cut of more than 20 percent, thanks to a drop in the value of county properties.
Fire district officials say the drop will cut $1.7 million out of the current $6.9 million budget. That’s going to affect service, they say. That’s going to include fewer firefighters, longer response times to fire scenes and, perhaps, higher rates for residential fire insurance.
The Eagle County School District also is claiming it will have to make deep cuts without more money. The district’s school board is set to vote this week whether or not to ask voters for a property tax increase to raise about $6.5 million per year.
School district officials say they’ve already cut more than $9 million and 100 jobs in the past two years. More cuts are coming without the tax increase, they say.
In Avon, town officials are looking for a way to fund bus service other than the town’s general fund and are looking at a combination of lodging and sales tax increases to maintain and expand the service.
Eagle is ready to ask voters to double the town’s lodging tax, and Vail has to ask voters to approve a plan to spend more than $9 million first approved for a conference center.
Whether voters go along with any of these ideas is another matter.
Powers said he’s so far been greeted with skepticism, at best. If he can make his pitch to someone, he might get “I’ll think about it” as a response.
“But a lot of people don’t even want to discuss it,” Powers said.
A phone survey conducted by the school district showed just 40 percent of respondents favored a tax increase. Paul Hanley, of Hill Research Associates, which did the survey, told school board members earlier this year that early surveys need to be at 58 percent or more in favor for a ballot issue to have a good chance of success.
Statewide, Gov. John Hickenlooper has said more than once that there’s “no appetite” for new taxes right now, and a Denver Post story about state Sen. Rollie Heath Heath’s press conference to announce his ballot initiative reported the conspicuous absence of other lawmakers that day.
But Ed O’Brien, president of the fire district’s board of directors, said none of that matters because the numbers are the numbers.
Noting that the district has been eyeing the 2012 budget for the past couple of years, O’Brien said “I don’t think we have a choice” but to ask voters for help.
Avon Mayor Rich Carroll said he plans to evaluate all of the ballot questions he sees on their merits and will vote accordingly, adding that he hopes other voters will do the same.
“I don’t think there’s ever a good time to ask for a sales tax increase,” Carroll said.
School Board Vice President Jeanne McQueeney also hopes that voters will evaluate the merits of the various ballot issues they see. Along with the state initiative, the school district’s question will be the only one virtually all Vail Valley voters will decide this fall.
“We can’t control what everybody else is going to do,” McQueeney said. But with all of the questions on the ballot, the school board is seeking to keep its ballot language as simple as possible.
Given the times, it looks like even the best intentions of local districts will be met with furrowed brows from voters.
Buddy Shipley, a frequent letter writer to the Vail Daily, wrote in an email that he believes voters may tune out and vote no when faced with a multitude of tax questions.
“I was just talking with a friend last night whose wife is very liberal (his description),” Shipley wrote. “He said that she was appalled by all the tax increases being proposed, especially in such a weak economy.”
Speaking for himself, Shipley added, “All of our governments should be subject to the same economic pressures as all of us mere working stiffs. Why should our myriad governments and all their various redundant and failing agencies, departments and programs be exempt from the harsh economic reality that we must confront every day?”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.