Commissioners ponder ballot question for Eagle County marijuana sales tax
By the numbers:
$492 million: Recreational and medical marijuana sales in Colorado from Jan. 1 to April 30, 2017.
$246,000: Eagle County’s 2016 share of statewide marijuana tax collections.
$750,000: Estimated first-year collections from a 5 percent sales tax on retail sales in Eagle County.
$2 million: Estimated first-year collections from a 5 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana grown in the county.
Source: Eagle County
Editor’s note: This story has been corrrected regarding the amount of proposed sales and excise taxes being considered by Eagle County.
EAGLE — It’s fairly likely the Eagle County Commissioners this year will ask voters to tax retail marijuana sales and the growth of marijuana. But one big question remains: Will any of that money be dedicated to housing?
At the moment, Eagle County doesn’t impose taxes on marijuana sold or grown in the county. In fact, the Colorado Legislature only this year granted counties that authority — and then only with voters’ permission. Counties now share a portion of state tax collections. Eagle County’s share in 2016 was less than $250,000.
A proposal being developed now would impose a 2.5 percent sales tax on recreational sales and a 2.5 percent excise tax on marijuana grown in the county for recreational use. If voters approve, then money would be allocated to mental health facilities, community grants and law enforcement. But two of the three commissioners remain skeptical about using any of the money for housing.
Sales and excise taxes would raise about $2.75 million in the first year. Those funds would be stretched thin.
County health department director Chris Lindley told the commissioners that creating a “one-stop” mental health facility could cost the county between $1.5 million and $2 million per year to operate.
Undersheriff Mike McWilliam said adding enough employees to run the jail expansion that was finished in 2008 would cost roughly $400,000 per year.
Those figures at the moment are written in pencil and subject to change. Still, there wouldn’t be much left for community grants or housing projects.
Two of the three commissioners — Jill Ryan and Kathy Chandler-Henry — remain skeptical about going to voters this year with another housing proposal.
The commissioners in 2016 asked voters for a 0.3 percent sales tax increase for housing efforts. If passed, then the tax would have generated an estimated $5 million in its first year.
The county’s business community backed the proposal, but voters disagreed, and the ballot issue received only 37 percent of the vote. A post-election survey of those who voted against the proposal showed that nearly two-thirds believed the county shouldn’t be involved in workforce housing.
That survey seems to contradict other surveys — particularly among employers — that housing is the county’s top problem.
With the latter sentiment in mind, Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney argued for an unapologetic second attempt at a tax to be used, in part, for housing.
McQueeney said the commissioners have to “own” the housing issue and be forthright in seeking solutions.
She advocated telling voters that, “we’re trying to find solutions, and we’re getting involved.”
But Ryan and Chandler-Henry advocated taking a year off and going to voters in 2018.
Then there’s the fact that with a total pool of less than $3 million, housing wouldn’t get much.
With, say, $1 million per year, the county wouldn’t be in a position to do much more than expand its down payment assistance loan program for first-time buyers and participate in public-private partnerships.
Seeking some success
McQueeney said she believes even a relatively modest boost for housing could strengthen the county’s standing as a partner in various housing efforts.
And, she added, a more modest start could help ease some of the skepticism about the bigger pool proposed in 2016.
“There was a fear we could do something the public didn’t want,” McQueeney said. That skepticism extended to the town of Basalt, which asked county officials for an intergovernmental agreement giving that town the right to weigh in on every proposed purchase and product.
The commissioners and staff are going to find more information before deciding whether or not to include housing on this year’s proposal.
“Without that, we’re just guessing,” Ryan said.
Still, time is growing short to finalize a ballot issue. The commissioners will have to have a final version of the proposal finished by the first week of September. At that point, no one at the county can use his or her official position to advocate for the proposal. That would also mean having weeks to pull together private efforts to advocate for the issue.
At the moment, officials are including a housing component in drafting a ballot proposal. But that could change, and fairly quickly.
If housing funding is pulled out of this year’s proposal, then another proposal could go to the ballot in 2018. But that ballot, a general election that includes races for several state, local and congressional offices, will likely also be filled with revenue proposals from both state and local governments.
That’s a risk. But so is going to voters a year after the last housing-funding proposal failed.
Whatever the decision, “We don’t want to fail,” Chandler-Henry said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.