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Guest commentary: Common-sense reforms would reduce metro district abuses

The recent debate over metropolitan districts has focused on whether metro districts are “good” for the community or “bad” for their taxpayers.


Supporters of metro districts point to the need for affordable housing stock and recite the mantra that “development pay its own way.” Opponents focus on the tax burden and lack of accountability. As a homeowner in a metro district, a board member for the past 16 years and an attorney who has sued abusive metro districts, let me suggest that the problem is not the concept of these districts but rather abuses that should be reformed.

Metro district abuses have occurred in at least five areas:

1. Multiple district structures allowing one district to control another: Each district is required by statute to have a defined boundary and must show the need for services and the ability to economically pay for such services. But since the early 2000s, developers have created “consolidated service plans” in which there is often a single uninhabitable “developer district” often as small as a few hundred square feet that controls the operations, while the taxpayer district consisting of hundreds or thousands of homes does little more than levy taxes to pay the debt. The developer district which spends the money is not accountable to the taxpayers. This abuse should be reformed so that each district must be approved based on its own tax base and need for services.

2. Developers preapprove excessive taxing authority before there are any “real” taxpayer residents: Developers eliminate TABOR rights of residents and taxpayers to vote on taxes and bond debt. The recent trend to circumvent TABOR is for developers to preapprove at the initial election far more taxing authority than could ever make economic sense. Many new districts are created with tens of billions of dollars of preapproved taxing and bonding authority. This equates to millions of dollars in taxes or bonds per home that will eventually be built. No reasonable voter owning a $500,000 home would ever approve millions of dollars of taxes on their home. Limits should be set on the initial voter approval of bonds or taxes to a fixed percentage of the then-current assessed value of the district.

3. Use of patently unfair “authorities” and “intergovernmental agreements” to restrict the power of future homeowner boards: Along with the multiple metro district structure, developers often create “authorities” (i.e., an association of districts or other governments) or intergovernmental agreements to keep control of taxation and operations, and prevent homeowner control. For example, the Aurora Highlands Community Authority Board includes three residential districts in which thousands of taxpayers will eventually reside, two commercial districts that will contain millions of dollars of future commercial development and a single one-acre “coordinating metropolitan district” (i.e., developer control district) that will never have any significant tax base. Each of the “real” residential and commercial districts appoints one board member to the board. But the developer district appoints up to seven board members — absolute majority control. These unfair agreements originally created by a single developer should be clearly voidable by the constituent districts.

4. Control of districts by nonresident developer affiliates who effectively do not pay taxes through option contracts: Current law requires district board members to be taxpayers or residents of the district. But there is an exception for developer districts to qualify directors through option contracts when a district does not yet have qualified electors. However, this exception allows directors to keep control of districts for at least two to four years after there are “real” taxpayers and residents. This exception for qualifying electors should be limited so that once there are qualified electors interested in serving on the board, the developer affiliates must step down.

5. Developers including/excluding their properties to avoid paying taxes: The current trend is for districts to be created with the ability to include or exclude property from a “future inclusion area” at will. This encourages developers to play a shell game, where they include and exclude their property from districts. When a homeowner board is about to take control, they exclude the rest of their property from that district and then issue bonds to be paid by the homeowner-controlled district. This leaves homeowners responsible for infrastructure debt on land outside their district boundaries. The legislature needs to put an end to this inclusion/exclusion shell game.

Metro districts can play a vital role when they are efficiently and economically run by residents and taxpayers. But these are public governmental entities. If the state and developers want to use these districts to fairly fund development, they need to rein in these abuses.

Besnette Hauser: Reflecting on history and walking as one in a new year

Colorado Mountain College President & CEO Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser. October 2020

For many, one of the great outcomes of the pandemic is the reawakening of gratitude in our daily lives. This is certainly true for Colorado Mountain College. During this extraordinary time, our team at CMC deeply appreciates the kindness and resiliency of our communities and the significance of the transformative endowments bestowed upon our institution.

Colorado Mountain College routinely recognizes the generosity of pioneering visionaries who established the college decades ago. These intrepid individuals and the communities in which they lived gave CMC tremendous physical and financial resources to build an authentic, mission-focused institution designed to ensure that the residents of a rugged and remote swath of Colorado have access to post-secondary education, workforce training, lifelong learning and forums for rich dialogue and debate.

Throughout its history, CMC has had many occasions to honor those who made the college possible and the impact they have had on hundreds of thousands of students who have passed through our doors. We are truly grateful. And yet, the pandemic has further exposed certain communities in America that are too often overlooked, marginalized and underappreciated.

As an institution with a purpose to instill wisdom and knowledge, CMC has a responsibility not only to honor those who shaped our immediate history but also to accurately acknowledge ancient forebears who cherished the lands on which CMC now operates — long before ranchers and miners journeyed west, before Colorado was even a state and before Spanish explorers first arrived in our region.

For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s, bands of Indigenous people inhabited western Colorado. To the Ute people, the mountains, valleys and rivers here were sacred and life-enabling places. Importantly, the Ute people never believed they “owned” the land. Rather, these historically nomadic people were “of the land.” Like the birds, animals and fish, they benefited from bountiful air, water, sunshine and soil in our region.

CMC hasn’t adequately appreciated the heritage, legacy and wisdom of the Ute peoples nor sufficiently created space to understand and dignify their traditions, recognize their influences on the regions we love and appreciate their perspectives on stewardship and living in harmony with the natural world long before the college existed.

Colleges and universities around the country have been offering pro-forma “land acknowledgments” in various forms in recent years. These affirmations are often mentioned in speeches or on websites or appear as plaques on buildings or designated areas on campuses to recognize aboriginal groups who occupied a place or geographic area. CMC is no different.

These are fundamental and sincere gestures, but they are symbolic only. Looking ahead, it is important to contemplate, “Can we do more?”

Can we correct historical omissions, more accurately describe the story of our region and recognize the very real implications of cultural marginalization, particularly those events that preceded the current generation? Can we open our minds to invite Indigenous perspectives to shape and inform the college’s future? Can we more authentically engage an enduring dialogue to appreciate stewardship of our lands and manage them in ways that honor native traditions and people? Most important, can we meaningfully repair past injustices?

To explore these questions, and ones that have not yet been asked or contemplated, Colorado Mountain College will embark upon a yearlong journey of learning and growth. On Monday, Jan. 17, in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, CMC has invited Ernest House Jr., senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center and member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colorado, to help the CMC community frame and initiate our path forward.

Dr. King once said our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. For CMC, it matters that we accurately understand the past. It matters that we manage our lands in ways that respect the traditions and expectations that preceded the college. And it matters that we teach our students to recognize and reflect upon injustice and give them tools to do something about it.

A Native American proverb, often attributed to the Utes, says, “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Walk beside me that we may be as one.” All are invited to join our MLK Jr. Day discussion with Mr. House and walk beside the college’s faculty, staff and students so that we may all experience the journey as one. For more information about this public Zoom event, go to ColoMtn.me/mlkevent.

Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser is president & CEO of Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at president@coloradomtn.edu or @CMCPresident.

Bennet: Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill helps cut child poverty

Sen. Michael Bennet

With a stroke of his pen, President Joe Biden launched the most ambitious effort to lift children out of poverty since the New Deal.

The president’s American Rescue Plan, which the president signed March 11, will cut child poverty almost in half in a single year. It will cut poverty for Hispanic kids by over 45%, for Black kids by over 50% and for kids living in tribes by over 60%.

This part of the Rescue Plan comes from the American Family Act, a proposal I have worked on for years with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; and Vice President (and former senator) Kamala Harris to expand the child tax credit and extend it to families that need it most. Under our plan, almost every family in America will receive $3,000 per child and $3,600 per child younger than 6.

This is a moral imperative. The United States is the wealthiest society in human history, but we have one of the highest rates of child poverty and one of the lowest rates of economic mobility among developed nations. That combination is brutal for the 10 million American kids in poverty, who are disproportionately from communities of color.

No child chooses to be born poor, but any expert will tell you that growing up in poverty can shape a child’s future in ways that are deeply unfair.

By age 4, a child born to a low-income family will hear millions fewer words than their more affluent peers. They are twice as likely to repeat a grade and 10 times as likely to drop out of school. Would any senator accept those odds for their children? Of course not.

The truth is that, for generations, America has treated children in poverty like they are someone else’s children. And, whether we know it or not, we are all paying the price.

Child poverty costs our country up to $1 trillion a year, in the form of more hospital visits, lower earnings and higher crime — to say nothing of the generation of entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors and inventors we lose because poor kids never had a fair chance to chase their dreams.

That is why economists from across the political spectrum agree that investing in our kids is one of the best investments we can make as a country. According to Columbia University, every dollar we invest in a strong Child Tax Credit generates $7 in benefits to society down the road.

Nevertheless, some critics claim this investment in families will hurt society by somehow discouraging people from working. They should read a recent report from a conservative think tank showing that a stronger child tax credit actually increases work force participation.

It’s not hard to see why. Every Coloradan I’ve met wants to work, but the truth is, it can be hard to hold a good-paying job in this country, because we’ve left so many families with virtually no margin for error.

A recent Federal Reserve study found that nearly four in 10 Americans can’t afford a $400 surprise expense — and that was before the pandemic.

I hear all the time from people who get hit with an unexpected car repair they can’t afford and soon lose their job because they can’t make it to work. Millions of families are trapped in this economic insecurity — working all the time but saving nothing, one emergency away from everything falling apart.

The expanded child tax credit will make an enormous difference in their lives, providing millions of families with an extra cushion to pay for groceries, diapers, textbooks, calculators and the thousand other expenses that come with raising a child in America.

In our state alone, it will benefit almost 90% of kids and lift 57,000 children out of poverty. It is a historic step toward a society that doesn’t just talk about family values but that actually values families.

But it is only the first step. The expanded Child Tax Credit could expire in a year, leaving millions of kids and families back at square one.

If we want to secure our gains against child poverty and make a lasting difference for families, our work ahead is clear: let’s make the expanded child tax credit permanent.

Michael Bennet is the senior U.S. senator from Colorado and a former superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

Guest commentary: No flame, no pain … local governments need to make electrification a priority

Writer Bill McKibben, who in his mid-60s learned to alpine ski at Snowmass last year, says that if we hope to avoid the persistent heat, drought and fire we’ve experienced recently, we can no longer build anything that leads to a flame. What does he mean? In short, if you heat a new building with gas, it will emit CO2 and methane for the next 50 years. Heat and cool it with electricity, however, and that structure’s carbon footprint declines every year as the grid adds more and more renewable power. No flame, no pain.

The Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys have always had a role in modeling climate solutions for the rest of the county. Aspen’s Renewable Energy Mitigation Program was the country’s first carbon tax. Holy Cross Energy, even beyond its current renewable energy leadership, was one of the first utilities in the nation to offer a green power purchase program. Today, new technologies once again offer a way to speed up our region’s response to climate change as a prototype for the country.

One of the best ways to address greenhouse gas emissions is to improve building codes, and this region has done a phenomenal job in that area. But fully decarbonizing the built environment — as will be required to meet meaningful emissions goals like those targeted in the Paris Accord and in Colorado by HB-1261 and Governor Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap — is going to be quite difficult. Electrification is a key solution.

We are respectfully asking local government officials to begin exploring a range of strategies that can enable new and old building electrification. Many communities have already implemented electrification codes, ranging from a complete ban on natural gas in new buildings, to incentive-based systems. Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency’s REMP program offers another, albeit weaker, approach: a fee on new installed gas.

A great primer on electrification codes, including adoptable language, is available from the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. This isn’t radical: multiple local, all-electric projects are already built or in the works, ranging from luxury condos in Snowmass to employee housing in Basalt. But it is urgent.

Based on the age of subdivisions in the valley, many residents will soon need to replace their old gas boilers and water heaters. Beyond some Holy Cross rebates for heat pumps, there is no incentive to go electric. Local installers are not trained up on technology or installation because they don’t know if it will be worth it. Yet the lack of installers is part of what’s making the switch difficult. One path forward would be to require new builds to be all-electric and retrofits to meet super-low carbon emission standards. That would enable the installer base to grow, provide homeowners with knowledgeable advisers, and bring costs down.

Thanks to Holy Cross Energy, we’ll be receiving low-carbon and ultimately zero-carbon energy, meaning all-electric buildings will naturally be net zero, even without solar panels. The sooner we can get to that clean future, the better.

Auden Schendler is senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. Ted White is executive chair of Rocky Mountain Institute. Both live in Basalt.