Eagle eyes April vote for riverfront park proposal
EAGLE — With survey results in hand showing strong local support for a sales tax increase to fund a river park project in town, members of the Eagle Town Board have unanimously voted to take the proposal to the voters.
But they did decide to present it at an election later, rather than sooner — as in April 2016 versus this November.
Tuesday night, Peggy Chiu from The Trust for Public Land presented results from a survey commissioned by the town to gauge support for either a sales tax increase or a property tax increase to fund an ambitious $12 million river park plan that would stretch from Chambers Park to the western edge of the truck parking area owned by Eagle County.
The overall plan includes trails, grassy areas, bathrooms and a promenade with utility hookups for food trucks, roadside vendors and special event overnight use. The in-stream plans include wave features, eddies, beaches and accommodations for rafts and tubes. Additionally, the plan calls for pedestrian bridge construction to link the area to downtown Eagle. The town envisions phasing the project and attracting funding partners such as Eagle County and Greater Outdoors Colorado. The most likely initial phase would include transforming the truck parking into a riverside park with the in-stream features. That part of the plan would cost an estimated $7 million.
In a survey conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates during the period between Aug. 11 and Sunday, Eagle residents indicated strong support for a sales tax increase to fund river park improvements. The survey included 185 responses and 68 percent of the people polled said they were “very willing” or “somewhat willing” to pay $4 extra per month for the project. Translated into sales tax, that would be an approximately 0.4 percent increase to Eagle’s current total sales tax level of 8.4 percent. That increase would generate approximately $300,000 annually and would allow the town to issue approximately $3 million in revenue bonds.
Headed in the right direction
Chiu said the survey showed people are very positive about the town of Eagle
“You have a great community and people think you are just going upward,” she said.
Seventy-one percent of the survey respondents thought Eagle was headed in the right direction and 65 percent said they had heard about the river corridor plan. The support stretched across political parties and genders. Many survey respondents said their jobs were tied to the tourism industry and those respondents were even more likely to vote yes on a sales tax increase for a riverfront park.
“We like to see numbers in the 60 percent level or higher before we recommend going forward with a ballot question,” Chiu said.
For that reason, the sales tax option is looking like a more palatable option for voters. When asked if they would support a property tax to pay for the park plan, only 47 percent of the survey respondents supported the plan.
An issue of timing
Because the survey showed solid support for the riverfront park plan and a tax increase to fund it, the Eagle Town Board was split over timing for an election.
“One of the debates we are having, frankly, is whether to go to the November ballot or the April ballot,” said town board member Anne McKibbin.
In November, the question would be presented in a mail-in ballot for the off-year election. In April, it will be presented as part of the Eagle municipal election.
“With these numbers … I would consider going to the November ballot. Your residents are really loving their lives here,” Chiu said.
Town board member Andy Jessen urged his counterparts to move forward with the election now. He used a baseball metaphor, saying waiting until April was like when a major league team decides not to act before the trade deadline. “We have a fan base that is very energized and intrigued right now. We need to move now and get them out to the ball park,” Jessen said.
“I haven’t heard anything that makes me think anything will change between now and April. All I see is us punting because we are nervous,” he added.
Town board member Luis Benitez also urged action. He said as a community, Eagle has been brave about embracing possibilities.
“There is this sense that we are the little town that could,” Benitez said.
Other members voiced support for the April vote.
“To me it is not a question of if, it is a question of when,” said town board member Sarah Baker. “I am a yes, but I am a yes for April and not for November.”
Member Doug Seabury voiced concern that the sales tax increase would mean Eagle would have the highest sales tax rate in the county and said more economic analysis should be done before taking the proposal to the voters.
“Are we moving too fast? We want to get it right,” Seabury said. “I feel like if we put this on the ballot now, we are misleading the public.”
“I have a feeling that it has a better chance of passing in April,” said Mayor Yuri Kostick.
After an initial motion to bring the issue to the voters in November failed, members unanimously approved a motion calling for an April election. In the months between now and then, they instructed staff to firm up cost estimates for the proposal and provide economic analysis for what the riverfront park development could mean for Eagle.
The proposed deal would be a three-way agreement between the town, the developer and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.