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Change of tax in order

Don Rogers

While Vail largely hollers about economic problems on their way toward being solved and the same old things they’ve hollered about for at least the past decade, there are yet a few actions the town could take to improve its position.

The town government gantlet for project improvements could be speeded up without sacrificing due care in oversight.

An impact fee on empty store space, as suggested by Vail Mountain chief Bill Jensen last week, might nudge some of those owners reluctant to charge more reasonable rates in the right direction.



And here’s an old, obvious one: Vail, which has the lowest property tax by far in Eagle County, would do well to shift the engine fueling the town from off the backs of merchants and more fairly across the property ownership.

The story of sales tax fueling resort communities is volatility, as well as a certain flatness when averaged out over the past decade or so and compared to the rate of inflation. That’s not just Vail, which might surprise the town’s habitual hand-wringers to know their town has fared relatively well compared to most resorts across the Rockies and the country. It also suggests such whimsies as snowfall and the national economy have as much, if not more, to do with the town’s success as anything else.



Yes, it’s well understood that the survey says townsfolk don’t want to pay property tax if the visitors can support their services. This free lunch ain’t working particularly well, though. It’s to the point the mountain can nudge at a record and the merchants – and town government – don’t see a windfall.

The reflexive finger-pointing at the specter of those awful Front Range day skiers is bunk, frankly. Not long ago the wail was over Breckenridge and Keystone getting all those skiers who should be coming here. Folks have short memories here. They’ve forgotten all the studies and community conversations of the mid- to late-’90s on these very subjects.

Those Front Rangers, Vail Resorts says, tended to spend a night or two when they came to Vail this past winter. The classic big bucks “destination” visitors from out of state again came in fewer numbers than they did when the economy was booming and there was more disposable income in the country. And a growing development – Vail and Beaver Creek have become neighborhood ski hills as the population doubled in a decade. Talk about day skiers.



Vail and all the other ski towns are dealing with a cacophony of trends, including the downvalley migration of merchants with less expensive wares and lower sales taxes, as well as the worker bees. It’s gone further than that, too, as communities develop that longer depend on the head of the valley for their daily bread.

Against this backdrop, monumental questions such as “Arrive After 5” vs. “Free After 3” seem pretty inane. Too many of the good citizens are distracting themselves. A merchant’s business is not going south over 60 minutes free parking in place of 90 minutes, either.

The big dog, VR, has a stake in this hunt for better shopping villages. The merchants themselves are not helpless, or blameless. The times and customer mix have changed in recent years. There is going to be a fallout. The weak will fade away. Welcome to capitalism.

A veritable sprouting of “renaissance” projects – high-end hotels, a revamped Lionshead, shops and such – are in the gristmill for the village and the tired area around the gondola. Summer tourism efforts are building. This year brings the New York Philharmonic and a summer flight program that looks to be taking off.

The budding convention center may be out of sight and mind among the general populace, but that doesn’t make this development less important to the town’s economic fortunes in the future.

Adding one level to the Lionshead parking structure will effectively solve an exaggerated parking problem. One more season or even two of cars on the Frontage Road on big ski days won’t matter in the larger picture.

The larger picture question, assuming a leader steps forward to push it seriously, is moving from the sales tax model to fund government to the more traditional community’s revenue coming mainly from a more stable property tax.

For those who question the more, more, more quality of the discussion about Vail’s future vs. those ephemeral quality-of-life assets, this is the crux of it.

Vail has to have more, more, more if sales tax is to continue as the engine. Customers who spend more, more, more are the fuel to keep it going. And the town is obligated to keep that fuel pumping just as hard as it possibly can.

The current property tax here is far below the rest of the county’s municipalities. The way to bring the quality of life values more into play is to bring the mix of taxes into better balance by raising the property tax and, gasp, lowering the sales tax and redirecting the real estate transfer tax so that it is not squandered on what have become frivolities now that the lion’s share of open space has been purchased.

A possible irony is that such a move would likely benefit the business community far more than most of what is being hollered about now.

D.R.


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