Avon buses to remain free … for now
The town had planned to start charging $1 fares on all its buses Aug. 1. But merchants skewered the idea, convincing Avon Town Council Tuesday night to keep the buses free until after the November election while the town tries to find some other way to fund a system that’s losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We don’t want Avon to alienate itself from our guests,” said Scott Fulton, vice president of sales and marketing for Charter Sports, which operates stores in the Comfort Inn and the Christy Lodge.
Merchants, lodge owners and condominium managers said they feared visitors would be driven away by having to pay for buses to get around town and up to the slopes on Beaver Creek Mountain.
Fulton pointed out that a large majority of ski resorts provide free transportation to the slopes.
Town officials, however, said Avon can no longer afford the heavy subsidies needed to keep the $1.8 million system running. A steep drop in sales tax collections in the town has forced it to spend an extra $600,000 to run the free buses.
“Right now the economy is slow and we’re not getting tourist dollars,” Town Councilman Buz Reynolds said. “Our governor’s getting on TV and telling everybody not to come.”
The bus system has also been a victim of its own popularity, added Avon Finance Director Scott Wright.
“Demand and ridership continue to increase. But without a dedicated funding source our resources to meet demand continues to decrease,” Wright said. “As ridership increases and we try to meet demand, the subsidies only increase.”
The free bus system in Vail is supported by a lift ticket tax on skiers at Vail Mountain, said Town Manager Bill Efting.
So far, the town’s only idea to fund the buses has been to ask voters in November to impose a 4 percent tax on all building materials used in Avon.
But Town Council won’t be making a final decision on putting the “use tax” on the November ballot until Aug. 13.
Wright said the town could raise as much as $600,000 a year if voters approved the tax, though the idea has already been heavily criticized by several builders who work in Avon.
Councilwoman Debbie Buckley was the first to propose not charging bus fares until November. She said the town should wait to see if a use tax goes on the ballot and is approved by voters.
“I still think the use tax is the best solution,” she said. “But … we may have to still, at some point, start charging.”
At the town meeting Tuesday, residents and merchants suggested several other ways to fund the buses, including increasing the town’s 12.5 percent accommodation tax on hotel rooms, raising property taxes or increasing sales tax.
“There’s a finite amount of money,” Town Councilman Brian Sipes said. “You find one quality of life issue to cut or make pay for itself. Or you find a new revenue source.”
All the merchants agreed Tuesday that charging $1 for Avon’s buses would be bad for business.
“In comparison to Vail and Beaver Creek, the winter guests in Avon are extremely cost-sensitive,” he said. “Our guests are typically families who are watching every penny. Instead of CEOs and celebrities, many of our mom and dad customers are school teachers and postal workers on a budget.
“Many of these guests have been visiting Avon for years and are accustomed to free shuttles,” he said.
Town Councilman Pete Buckley said he’s strongly against both charging bus fares and imposing a use tax to pay for them.
“I’d rather talk about boosting sales tax in town,” Pete Buckley said.
He suggested following Vail’s popular – and free – Hot Summer Nights concert series with a similar series in Avon in August and September.
But other council members weren’t sure such events would be a dependable revenue source.
“I don’t think you’re going to find $300,000 there,” Debbie Buckley said. “We can’t control things like 9-11 and bad snow years.”
Town Councilman Mac McDevitt voted to postpone the bus fares, but warned the town may just be postponing the problem.
“This is putting off something that is awaiting funding,” McDevitt said. “We’ve already had people disagree with the use tax.”
Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.