Eagle Co. commissioners: Case for property-tax hike
Vail CO, Colorado
Eagle County is a multifaceted business conglomerate with plenty of challenges ahead to keep up with the times. In fact, with just more than 500 employees we’re the fifth largest employer in the county, providing services through more than 25 departments. As county commissioners, we oversee a $100 million budget through which we pay for everything from airports to well-baby visits. Our capital assets are significant and with a growing population and aging infrastructure, core services and facilities are increasingly demanding dollars that we must wisely and equitably reinvest to insure long-term fiscal stability as mandated by law.
We do have revenues, primarily those generated through the property and sales taxes we collect. Other funding streams come from state and federal grants and pass-through dollars, (although these are becoming less and less reliable) building and other permit fees, registrations, licenses, as well as interest we earn on our invested dollars.
When the Eagle County Assessor’s office mailed biannual notices of valuation to all property owners in the county last May, we learned that our property values have been increasing over the past two years (and are likely to continue to do so as long as the local real estate market stays active) with an average increase of 40 percent countywide, resulting in a $4.5 million infusion to our bottom line. That’s only about 8 cents a day for a local homeowner.
As a board, we are meticulously working through the 2008 budget, scrutinizing expenditures while making sure we continue to provide the quality, core services we are responsible for. We are working with all departments to ensure a balanced budget. Numerous cuts have already been realized, but we are continuing to find ways to be more efficient as we weigh funding against our objectives.
The explosive growth in the county creates new economic opportunities, but it also puts a tremendous strain on local governments that are mandated to provide public services. A perfect example of this is the Eagle County Justice Center, including the county jail, Sheriff’s office, district and county courts, the district attorney and probation offices. This building complex is 22 years old and is in need of a significant facelift and expansion to meet the demands of growth.
The detention facility is over capacity by 50 percent, and 20 overflow inmates are transported and housed at facilities outside of Eagle County on any given day, costing more than $300,000 a year to Eagle County taxpayers. An uncomfortable and possibly dangerous situation exists as the Sheriff’s office doesn’t have enough room to separate suspects from victims during interviews and court appearances.
Insufficient space in our courts cause delays in administering justice and thus increases costs for all. New programs, such as mediation, have the potential to reduce costs to citizens, but now can’t be an alternative for lack of space. The District Attorney’s Office is sharing workspaces, having only 10 desks for 15 people. Clearly it is important to maintain a level of safety to isolate criminals from county residents, but the constraints of antiquated facilities equates to a “justice delayed is justice denied” scenario for Eagle County residents.
The county has selected a planning architect, underwriter and contractor to help analyze an appropriate response to meet this critical need. The underwriter recently did a survey to explore a sales-tax increase as a possible funding alternative for the project. The answer was that at this point in time our citizens would not support a sales-tax increase, despite the fact that visitors, who pay 60 percent of the tax, would share in footing the bill. Consequently, we need to proceed with a more modest $20 million project using existing revenues as well as future revenue increases to the general fund.
The estimated annual costs to the county for a new justice center are $2.5 million to $3 million. With an estimated $4.5 million in increased property taxes in the general fund in 2008, after dedicating funds to the justice center we’ll have approximately $1.5 million to $2 million available for other general-fund expenditures to meet the needs of our growing population. That means our expenditures for core services in 2008 will increase less than 4 percent, a much smaller amount than the projected growth in population.
To put this issue in perspective, remember that Eagle County already has one of the lowest mill levies, or property tax rates, of all Colorado counties. It’s only 8.499, including the voter-approved 1.5 mills dedicated to open-space purchases. The Eagle County mill levy is significantly lower than neighboring Summit, Garfield, Routt and Park Counties, who all have mill levies in the double digits. In addition, Eagle County only retains slightly more than 14 percent of the total property tax you pay. Eighty-six percent goes to special districts, the school district and the towns.
As work continues on the 2008 budget, the Board of County Commissioners is proposing a fiscally responsible plan for the year ahead. The increase in property values, coupled with efficiencies realized by all Eagle County departments, will allow us to address critical needs like the Justice Center expansion. We have dedicated staff in our organization and are committed to a future of accurate, long-range planning translating into a greater return on the investment of your tax dollars for a better Eagle County.
The Eagle County Commissioners are Sara Fisher, Arn Menconi and Peter Runyon. E-mail comments to email@example.com.